This fall, journalists with the Invisible Institute will publish an interactive online database of all allegations of police misconduct in Chicago between March 2011 and March 2015, as well as partial data from earlier years. These records, obtained by the Invisible Institute through years of Freedom of Information Act litigation, offer an unprecedented view into the City’s system of police accountability. This series, produced in partnership with City Bureau, is meant to provide context for the forthcoming database.
When the Independent Police Review Authority was created in September 2007, a key term was “independent.” The organization was created following concerns that its predecessor had too many ties to the police department it was meant to oversee.
IPRA was to be completely independent: staffed and overseen by civilians, not police officers. But what the organization didn’t openly reveal, and what it took an interested civilian advocate months to figure out, is that its data—the files on investigations and complaints—isn’t independently held.
That’s because the data IPRA has is kept by the very agency it’s investigating—the Chicago Police Department.
Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, discovered this potential conflict when he filed a Freedom of Information Act request (a petition for access to public records) with IPRA asking for the agency’s police complaints from January 2013.
“Over a series of phone calls, it got to a point where [Larry Merritt, IPRA’s Public Affairs Director] seemed to say that they couldn’t get the data out because it was in CLEAR,” recounts Tracy Siska, executive director of the CJP.
The CLEAR (Citizen Law Enforcement and Reporting) database is maintained by the Chicago Police Department. Its primary purpose is to log and track crime incidents in Chicago, but it also stores the data for all Internal Affairs investigations. As Siska discovered, IPRA’s data is also contained within the system.
“Finally, there was a phone call between me, Larry [Merritt], and a data guy at IPRA. I gave an ultimatum at the end of the conversation—can you get the data or not?—and the IT guy said they don’t have administrative rights to the database.”
According to Siska, the result was that data fields had to be pulled individually out of CLEAR, in what he called a “very complicated, very ridiculous process.” The data was finally released to the CJP, over half a year after the original FOIA request (for reference, a federal report found that most FOIA requests take about twenty business days to complete), but Siska still isn’t sure that he has all of the data.
Merritt told the Weekly that while IPRA investigations are stored in the CPD database, there’s a clear separation between the two organizations. “They [the CPD] don’t have access to our files, we don’t have access to their files. If we need to find anything, our computer guy, he runs a report that accesses the CLEAR database, and we get all the information we need.”
Crista Noel, a leader in the movement for a civilian police review board, said that she suspects the shared infrastructure is a holdover from IPRA’s predecessor, the Office of Professional Standards, which was a CPD agency: “The majority of people who worked at OPS went over to IPRA. They rewrote the ordinance a little bit, but they didn’t change much else. And I think the database probably went with them.”
And while there is some dispute between Siska’s and Merritt’s claims about the level of access IPRA has to the data, experts say that the shared database is a problem either way.
“It makes you wonder what other kind of compromises are made. It’s not quite clear what the limit between the two agencies is.” said Sam Walker, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of several books on police accountability. Apart from the potential for serious conflicts of interest, though, Walker, simply said that keeping the databases separate amounts to common sense: “They’re an independent agency, they should have their own independent database. It’s not really a matter of law, just a matter of good policy.”