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 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?
Source and methodology