In 2016, The Chicago Reporter published, “Settling for Misconduct,” an intensive investigation of misconduct-related lawsuits against Chicago’s police department. It was anchored by an extraordinary database of settlements related to police misconduct cases – concerning false arrest, illegal search and seizure, or excessive force – often stemming from incidents in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods.
The project included two major solutions-oriented features – one about an effort in Minneapolis to require cops to have professional liability insurance; and another about a New York City initiative to track and share publicly allegations of police misconduct.
Here Chicago Reporter editor Susan Smith Richardson and Carla Murphy, who authored the Minneapolis story, explain how the reporting happened – and what happened next.
Richardson: We wanted to broaden the dialogue around police misconduct. We thought it was important to focus on the financial impact because it would broaden who was in the conversation – to include taxpayer groups, for example, who may not care about police reform, per se. Bringing them into the conversation could increase the momentum around reform.
Also, looking at the finances [focused the lens on] elected officials. It’s easy to focus strictly on a police department or individual officers. But the City Council has a voice in settlements; it has to approve settlements greater than $100k. That power often doesn’t get examined.
Richardson: Ever since the shooting of Michael Brown, the public has been inundated with news of shootings of civilians. You can look at grim numbers – but there was no information about what people could do if they wanted to address these issues – what was being done and what had been done in the past. We thought it was important to talk to experts and look at where the pressure points were that could lead to greater accountability. This would be a way of providing something that was real and very concrete to city officials, and to people who were concerned with issues of reform.
So, early on, we had thought, let’s look at solutions. What we learned was, we didn’t have to find a “perfect” police department; there was no such thing. But we could look at aspects of what police had done well to address accountability; and examine how that had been effective. Or we could surface promising but unproven ideas, as with the New York City story, which looked at the beginning of an early warning system to identify officers who had had multiple complaints and were at risk of incurring multiple costs.
Richardson: We spent a lot of time talking to experts about police accountability, the history of police reform, the history of police unions. Those pointed us toward the New York City story. New York was different from Chicago: Before there can be lawsuit, there has to be filing of claims, all of which go through controller’s office. It made perfect sense for the controller to be person who tracks incidents of police abuse. It doesn’t work that way in Chicago at all – so we knew from beginning that it wasn’t going to be apples to apples. But it was the idea of monitoring and tracking valuable data about police behavior, the ability to track claims, that was really critical. So we thought, how could the same idea be applied in Chicago? Then, Carla started doing a search of different initiatives around the country.
Murphy: The question was, where else in the country is a fiscal lens being applied to reforming police departments as it relates to ballooning misconduct settlements? I came across two current events: the insurance industry forcing small town police departments to fire police officers accused of criminal activity, for example; and the Minneapolis ballot push for liability insurance as a way to rid police departments of problem officers. The former didn't apply to The Chicago Reporter's audience as, unlike small jurisdictions, big cities self-insure.
Richardson: Carla found this idea in Minneapolis, a retool of something done decades ago – requiring that officers carry their own insurance, in same way that doctors or lawyers would. We said, that’s an interesting idea. Why did that go out of favor? We thought, this is a great opportunity to talk about a distinctive approach to liability – but also an interesting way to bring back a piece of historical context, to let people know the way things are handled now isn’t always the way it’s been.
Murphy: If implementation were the criteria for news coverage, marginalized or minority voices/positions would remain stifled, as would innovation and experimentation. So, as a reporter, implementation isn't my sole criteria. What I look for is citizens organizing to take action, i.e. the tiny widgets of democracy. It's always “a story” when citizens organize to bypass state legislature and get their propositions in front of voters. You have passionate characters, a hard-to-reach goal, effort and sacrifice, significant opposition and tension, etc. Those are elements of a story.
Richardson: The ballot initiative conflicted with a law that required the state to indemnify officers. So the effort ultimately failed. But the story still had tremendous value for the historical aspect and also because it revealed public momentum for a disincentive to address misconduct.
Richardson: I was a little concerned when our reporter from New York returned and we found there wasn’t a lot of evidence yet to indicate whether the effort there was working, or not. It was still an idea, and they were trying to make it work with the police department, which was setting up its own process. But when we found out that the New York Controller’s Chicago counterpart had already looked at the idea and was trying to make something work, that made me feel comfortable with the story. The evidence per se, wasn’t there; but the idea had traction.
As journalists we often shy away from ideas; we look for what has happened, or what is happening. But I think it’s about following and piecing together ideas as they emerge. I view that as an important part of reporting – and an idea can open up a conversation to other solutions. But we don’t want to do it without having conversations with experts who can talk about the merits and the weaknesses.
Richardson: We held a series of focus groups in the fall with people who were leaders of community groups, policy groups, and criminal justice reform groups. Everyone was amazed at the money the city was spending on these cases; no one had put the dollars together, and it added another dimension to the conversation.
In terms of real impact, has it done anything on the ground? No. But we began to hear the data being repeated in the community, so it’s beginning to have an impact on how the issue is discussed. It’s really relevant now, because the city is moving into its largest police union contract, and it’s the perfect time to have a conversation about solutions that increase accountability. We realize we have an opportunity to inject ideas from our stories and data from the database into an ongoing conversation. That’s how you begin to have the sort of impact we think about when we create these projects.