Project description

For years, the city of Chicago came under deserved scrutiny for often questionable and sometimes illegal shootings by its police officers. Citizens were abused, injured or killed under scandalous circumstances, much of which received the white-hot spotlight treatment of reporters from the city’s newspapers and television stations.
But just beyond Chicago’s borders, in the suburbs of Cook County, more than 100 municipalities collectively make up a population nearly as large as Chicago’s with police forces to match. Yet no media organization ever examined police accountability throughout this patchwork of towns.
That changed in 2018.
After for more than a year of reporting — talking to sources and citizens, gathering up hundreds of police reports and investigative files, and amassing a massive database to organize it all — reporters from the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization, and WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, detailed how police accountability in those suburbs may be even more lacking than in Chicago.
The exhaustive reporting showed that since 2005 there had been at least 113 police shootings in suburban Cook County in which officers shot unarmed suspects, innocent bystanders and even each other. Yet not a single officer involved was disciplined, fired or charged criminally. And just a handful of those suburban shootings were ever reviewed for potential misconduct.
The BGA-WBEZ investigation resulted in a week-long series that included four investigative online stories and five radio segments, as well as a database and an interactive map.
The data we needed for this story didn’t exist in one place, so we had to create the source ourselves through the painstaking collection of of files from local police departments, the state police and the county prosecutor.
That information then had to be entered line-by-line, column-by-column, before it could released to readers.
The project exposed a significant loophole that mitigated against efforts to police suburban police. Chicago’s internal process of assessing police shootings had long been criticized for too often whitewashing misconduct, but at least the city had the semblance of a system aimed at upholding standards.
Suburban departments almost never conduct internal investigations after one of their officers shoots someone. Instead, suburban police rely on state police investigators for that function, and the scope of any scrutiny is severely limited. The state police are empowered to explore only whether an office broke any laws in firing his weapon, not whether in doing so any policies or procedures were violated.
Our reporting spurred Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to offer assistance to suburban departments lacking resources to conduct administrative investigations. The Cook County Board has also scheduled hearings into the breakdown of the disciplinary process.
The data we amassed can be downloaded and used by reporters, academics and police. The shootings are mapped and broken down by category. The related files are also linked to the database. The work seeks to inform local residents about issues involved in police shootings while presenting a framework through which national audiences can be engaged in the process.

What makes this project innovative?

The data used for our stories was unavailable until we compiled it. Many news outlets covered fatal shootings, but the data the BGA and WBEZ assembled were the first to include all use of deadly force cases involving firearms in the Cook County suburbs. We did it by collecting hundreds of files from police departments, Illinois State Police investigations, use of force policies from departments, criminal and civil court case files and scores of interviews with victims, family members, police officials, officers and national experts. The result was a first-of-its-kind look at the issue of police shootings in the Chicago suburbs. The data were analyzed with SQL and organized spatially using Mapbox.
The final product was designed to allow readers to approach the stories, the radio segments, the video and the analyzed data from a number of different angles. Beyond the breakdown of the data, the package provides access to the raw case files so readers can delve deeper into the topic if they wish. In addition, the raw data is easily accessible and can be analyzed by both data experts and those with less experience. The map can be sorted by criteria including geography, race, weapon, gender and circumstances of the shooting and whether it was fatal. While the overall topic is an important and sometimes heavy one, the package’s layout aimed to make it approachable and easily absorbable by listeners on radio and readers on their computer or mobile device.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The response following the story was rapid. Many of the local departments and police agencies were surprised by the findings. Ten days after the publication of the series, the Sheriff sent a letter to all suburban police departments in Cook County offering assistance in conducting an administrative investigation of shootings. The bar for a legal conviction of a police officer in a shooting case is high. It is very difficult to prove criminality. Violations of policy, however, are easier to prove. By looking at these cases on a deeper level, departments can punish officers in cases where policy was ignored, and they could also identify educational opportunities that might prevent tragic circumstances in the future. The Cook County Board also scheduled a hearing to explore how it could assist in investigations of these cases. The impact of the series is not final, but through time and additional reporting, it will continue to roll in.

Source and methodology

The project was reported through scores of interviews as well as data that was collected and organized to make it easily shared with readers. Reporters gathered files from local police departments, the Illinois State Police and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, requesting files on all officer-involved shootings in which a suspect was struck by an officer’s bullet. While the state police files included some information needed to fully track shootings, not everything was made public. To fill in the holes, reporters gathered arrest records and court files that allowed them to, for instance, determine the age and race of those shot by police. Reportera also collected datasets rom the Illinois Training and Standards Board related to the training, background, racial and gender identity of police involved in shooting cases. With data in hand, the reporters created a dataset with information including names, ages, racial data, crime information, armed status, addresses, whether the events involved a vehicle and police agency. The viability of data entry was judged through an intercoder reliability test, and it was thoroughly double- and triple-checked following entry. A methodology was written to define all information coded in analysis of shooting data and use-of-force data. Where there were discrepancies over race or age information contained in files, prosecutor files were given priority. The statistical analysis was conducted using Navicat for MySQL and Microsoft Excel.

Technologies Used

All of the files were originally stored on a local server. The text files were uploaded to DocumentCloud using Python. DocumentCloud allowed reporters and database users to find text elements, and count names, terms and places in the files. The datasets were created using Google Sheets with data validation. The final spreadsheet was then downloaded and analyzed using Navicat for MySQL and Microsoft Excel. The mapped database was created using MapBox, HTML, Python and Pandas connected to a master Google Sheets database. The data set was shared with the public through GitHub.

Project members

Jared Rutecki, Casey Toner, Patrick Smith and Patrick Judge.

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