2021 Shortlist

Left in the Dark

Country/area: United States

Organisation: CBS Chicago

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 15 Nov 2020

Credit: Samah Assad, Christopher Hacker, Dave Savini

Project description:

Published about five years after the Chicago Police Department first began issuing body cameras to its officers, Left in the Dark explores how the policies surrounding those cameras have broken down at nearly every level, and how those breakdowns have exacerbated the trauma inflicted by police misconduct.

Impact reached:

In response to our reporting, the Chicago Inspector General’s office said they would take steps to ensure the body cameras are seen as “more than high-tech vest ornaments,” and would focus on body camera usage in a follow-up inquiry to a 2019 report it published, which, in part, discussed issues with CPD’s body camera policy, including misuse of cameras.

We asked Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPD Superintendent David Brown what steps they’d take following our reporting. Neither responded directly to our questions, and numerous interview requests to both officials were ignored.

A spokesperson for Mayor Lightfoot did say the city would “create a strengthened plan to ensure compliance among all officers with bodyworn [sic] cameras, including more detailed aspects of compliance such as the extent to which officers properly record interactions with the City’s residents.” The spokesperson didn’t provide specifics, so we will continue to report on those purported changes in the future.

In addition, during the summer of 2020, while we were reporting this story, two CPD officers who weren’t wearing body cameras shot a man in the back. In response, CPD announced officers on its specialized “community safety team” would finally be equipped with body cameras. Our focus now is to investigate how those changes play out.

Techniques/technologies used:

The data analysis was done in Python, particularly using geospatial tools like Geopandas and the Folium mapping library to visually examine geographic disparities in the data we obtained. 

To help piece together how often officers do activate their cameras when required, we used data on more than 340,000 routine investigatory stops beginning in 2018, after every patrol officer was equipped with a camera. At the time we reported the story, hundreds of officers on specialized tactical teams still weren’t required to wear cameras, so we used daily officer assignment data to rule out officers assigned to one of those teams, and found one in ten stops weren’t recorded. When factoring in officers who are on those teams, the number jumps to one in five.

We mapped that data down to the police beat — a small geographic subdivision, typically less than a square mile — used by CPD. It shows stark disparities in the use of body cameras, particularly when including stops made by officers assigned to tactical teams, who primarily work in predominantly Black and brown communities. While almost 100 percent of stops in the predominantly white North Side were recorded, less than 60 percent of stops were recorded in some parts of the South and West sides.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The biggest challenge with the data was determining if an officer had been given a camera at the time of the stop. While officers not equipped with cameras are part of the problem, our focus was on investigatory stops by officers who had cameras but didn’t use them properly.

We knew all patrol officers had cameras, but those on specialized teams didn’t, so we sought to determine if an officer was on one of those teams at the time of each stop. We obtained data showing the unit assignments of every CPD officer every day and cross-cross-referenced the officer’s identities and dates of the stops to determine if they were on one of those teams at the time of the stop.

In addition, we faced significant issues obtaining records in nearly every FOIA request we filed for this story.

In our requests to CPD’s accountability organization, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), for video of the one particular stop of a man we featured heavily in the story, COPA initially failed to release the dashcam video, and improperly redacted multiple portions of the body camera video. They only corrected the redactions when we realized they accidentally left one portion unredacted which was redacted in another officer’s camera.

CPD vigorously fought the release of internal audit reports on its body camera program that we requested. After we initially requested them in June 2019, police denied the request, saying they were exempt from release because they were materials gathered in the course of an audit. We refiled the request, and, after nearly four months, CPD denied the request again. We then appealed the request to the Illinois Attorney General, who agreed the records were in fact subject to release.

What can others learn from this project?

The takeaway from our experience reporting this story is the value combining records reporting and data reporting can bring.

On its own, the data we uncovered revealed significant disparities between communities in the likelihood an incident will be recorded — a finding that would have been significant even without the records we obtained. Likewise, the internal audit reports we fought so hard to get revealed not only that there was a problem, but that CPD knew about it for years, often documenting the same problem month after month.

Like our data, that would have been a story on its own. But the conjunction of the two yielded an even more powerful narrative: CPD knew there were problems with officers misusing cameras, and with the accountability systems set up to ensure officers use cameras properly. Yet, as far as we can tell (and as far as CPD has told us), they’ve made little meaningful progress. The consequences of that lack of accountability are the disparities we saw in our data. 

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