Investigative Journalist Jamie Kalven Pulls Back The Curtain On Police Impunity

Jun 2, 2017

In the mid ‘90s, writer Jamie Kalven became immersed in Stateway Gardens, an impoverished and embattled public housing community on the South Side of Chicago.

Kalven created a grassroots public works program, served as an adviser to resident leadership, and eventually started an online publication to document the conditions of life in the community. After witnessing years of unconstitutional and abusive policing, Kalven began to report on police abuse in the neighborhood. This reporting eventually paved the way for a legal decision establishing that police disciplinary records in the state of Illinois are public information.

Kalven founded a journalistic production company called the Invisible Project to house this new public database, the Citizens Police Data Project. Since then, Kalven broke the story about the police killing of teenager Laquan McDonald, and also published a four-part series interrogating the code of silence within the Chicago Police Department. Host Frank Stasio talks with Kalven about his career-long efforts to pull back the curtain on policy impunity. Kalven is a visiting Kenan Practitioner-in-Residence at Duke University this week and speaks at Duke University’s Gross Hall tonight at 6:30 p.m.

Note: This program is a rebroadcast from February 8, 2017.

Interview Highlights:

On his immersion in the Stateway Gardens neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in the mid- ‘90s
Chicago had, on the South Side, the biggest concentration of public housing in the country, which was also the biggest concentration of poverty. You could think of it as being Soweto in Johannesburg [...] a city within a city. It was a fascinating phenomena on South State Street. There were several miles of high-rise public housing developments [...] and these developments were built in what had been the old black-belt of the city created by the great migration from the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s. By the time I worked there in the ‘90s they were utterly abandoned.

On his early observations of police-community relations in Stateway Gardens
It extended from a spectrum of casual, ugly incivility, use of the N-word… to an extreme. I investigated a homicide by the police. I investigated rape. There were coerced confessions that can only be described as being exacted as torture. And everything in between [...] Nobody would make a 9-1-1 call in Stateway Gardens with an expectation that anyone would come [...] On a daily basis you would see police come, take drugs and money off the young men, and not make arrests. The residents would joke about the areas where the drug dealing took place [...] as a policeman’s ATM machine. 

On the significance of The Citizens Police Data Project
Official secrecy degrades our ability as citizens in that we don’t have the information we need to be effective citizens [...] What we’ve been able to demonstrate in analyzing this body of material is the degree to which what really has existed was a system for not knowing things we were capable of knowing. When you do that it becomes apparent that it is extraordinarily unlikely that any allegation of abuse will ever be sustained by the investigative bodies within the police department and within the city. And if sustained, there is an infinitesimal chance that the officer will receive any meaningful punishment. It’s like a portrait of impunity... a lack of fear of punishment.

On breaking the story of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager who was shot 16 times by the Chicago police
In any American city you read stories like this often. [...] I remember reading the Laquan McDonald reporting [...] and it was a week or so later that a colleague I work closely with, a civil rights lawyer, got a call from a whistleblower high within law enforcement, somebody we both knew, with the information that what had been reported was not at all what had happened. That the case was horrific. That there was video [...] and that he was really doubtful that his own agency would investigate it, so he was reaching out. 

On his takeaway from the Laquan McDonald case
The point I want to really emphasize is that as the city put out the press release, they knew everything. They had multiple police and civilian witnesses. They had the video, they knew they had the video. [...] so all that information was available. They put out a false narrative [...] so having put out this patently false narrative, they had to do all sorts of things: destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses, falsify official reports, stonewall the press, withhold public information from the public, and then the culmination was [...] a $5 million settlement with the family to keep the video from coming out. 

On the ‘code of silence’ within the Chicago Police Department
The current culture in policing is such that you have to be really extraordinarily heroic to break ranks, to fulfill your oath, to report criminal activity by other officers [...] An institution in which you have to be a hero to be decent [...] is a profoundly dysfunctional institution. So if you were doing a biopsy of policing in America, I think the functioning of the code of silence is just a central pathology. 

On police reform
As we go forward in Chicago and nationally with the discourse about police reform, we have to extend some imaginative sympathy to the police who are often seen in a purely negative light in this. Police reform has to work for police officers as well as the general public [...] A friend of mine made a statement years ago [...] she said in a democracy there is nothing as good as a good police officer, and there is nothing as bad as a bad police officer [...] We need to fully assess and confront the degree of harm that can be caused by a relatively small number of officers if they are allowed to operate with impunity. But we also need to remember what good police officers look like and how critically important they are. 

Watch footage from the Invisible Institute's Youth/Police Project, an inquiry into youth-police interactions on the South Side of Chicago: