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Database Shows Complaints Against Chicago Officer Charged In Teen's Death


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win.


In Chicago, Protesters are out for a second night in a row after a video was released showing a police officer fatally shooting a black teenager. Veteran officer Jason Van Dyke was charged yesterday with first-degree murder in the death of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times. Today, we learned that Jason Van Dyke has racked up a number of misconduct complaints. That's according to official records collected in a new database.


The Citizens Police Data Project is a joint effort by the University of Chicago and a group called the Invisible Institute. The founder of that group, Jamie Kalven, sued to make the police misconduct records public. I spoke with him earlier today and asked what he found in the Van Dyke documents.

JAMIE KALVEN: So with Officer Van Dyke, there are some 20 complaints, none of them acted upon. The complaints show a pattern of excessive force and verbal abuse, racial verbal abuse. You know, I would not suggest that on the basis of this complaint record, you could've predicted what happened in the Laquan McDonald shooting, but there was every reason to be - to investigate further what's going on with this officer, to intervene, and that did not happen.

SHAPIRO: What you see in the Van Dyke documents reflects what you see more broadly in these documents, which is a small number of people that have a large number of complaints and not a lot of accountability for those complaints. That suggests that this actually is kind of a bad apple situation.

KALVEN: Yeah, I am not comfortable with the bad-apple image 'cause it's always preceded by a few bad apples. I mean, this is a significant number of officers but still a small percentage of the force. The patterns of police misconduct are so highly, precisely patterned, but the city does not do pattern analysis. And that could take the form of, you know, assessing an unusual number of complaints for an individual officer, a group of officers who are working together who all have a high number of complaints that could not be a statistical anomaly, the geographic distribution of complaints. There's so much information, but there is a refusal to connect the dots. So part of what we, you know, aspire to do with the database is to really demonstrate what can be learned from this information.

SHAPIRO: You litigated for nearly a decade to get this data from the Chicago Police Department, and there is right now a national conversation about police violence. What do you think other cities can learn from what you've done in Chicago?

KALVEN: This information belongs to the public, and I think people should be strongly advocating for it. It's a necessary condition for citizens to be effective and for all of us collectively to be smart in how we proceed in fixing a set of intolerable conditions. These are problems that can be addressed and significantly ameliorated but not if we don't acknowledge the realities. And we can only acknowledge the realities if we have access to the information.

SHAPIRO: You put all of this online, and suddenly, all these patterns were apparent to the public. How did the Chicago Police Department react to that?

KALVEN: So we have, you know - they have pushed back some - in terms of analyses of the numbers - the - you know, I think there's been a degree of acknowledgment. After all, these are the city's statistics. This is not something that we generated through some other process. And I think part of the kind of watershed moment we're at is that we can now have the necessary arguments about police reform and appropriate interventions with reference to the same body of evidence. Now we're in a place where we can have that conversation.

The other thing that we've noticed - there's a very robust police blog in Chicago that linked to the database. And so we've had a very substantial number of police officers looking at the database. I had one former commander tell me there's information in the database that she did not have access to when she was commanding a district, you know, in terms of the officers under her command.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean a commander might get a complaint about an officer and not know that there were 20 previous complaints about that same officer and if they did know, they would treat it differently?

KALVEN: If those complaints were unsustained, which the vast majority are, under the union contract, they would not, as I understand it from this retired commander, they would not show up in the personnel records available to her.

SHAPIRO: That's Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute, talking with us about the Citizens Police Data Project in Chicago. Thanks a lot.

KALVEN: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.