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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

More Public Data Can Help Hold Police Accountable, Experts Say — But More Must Be Done To Create Systemic Change

Data portals can better publicize Chicago Police Department's responses to misconduct, but the data doesn't keep abusive officers off the street.

A person holds a sign while walking in the Old Town neighborhood during a peaceful protest on June 2, 2020 in reaction to the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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HYDE PARK — Experts and neighbors say public data is one way Chicagoans can start holding officers accountable amid national movements to reform and defund police.

The issue was the focus of a community forum Thursday night, the fifth in a series hosted by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference.

Economic professor Bocar Ba talked about the Citizens Police Data Project, a civilian-led data project that shows the complaint history of Chicago Police officers. The project was developed by Ba and doctoral candidate Roman Rivera.

Violations of citizens’ constitutional rights decreased 25-34 percent once police officers became aware their complaint history would become public, Ba said.

But outside of the Freedom of Information Act, few options exist for civilians to retrieve data on their own. Access can be difficult for civilians and lawyers, as it requires collaboration among government agencies that “don’t necessarily cooperate with each other,” Ba said.

Some city agencies offer a way around these roadblocks, offering greater transparency into the Chicago Police Department’s inner workings.

The Investigator General’s Office has a data portal where people can view reports on arrests, use of force incidents and traffic stops, among other information.

The Police Department is required to give the agency “direct access” to policing data, allowing for more detail than may be publicly available, said Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

Ferguson testified at City Council earlier this month, saying the Police Department’s school resource officer program was “not in compliance with just about every federal best practice.”

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability also has access to police department records “as if [COPA was] internal,” said chief administrator Sydney Roberts.

On its data portal, the agency publicizes video, audio and police reports in cases of:

  • Officer-involved shootings.
  • Officer-involved Taser use that results in death or great bodily harm.
  • Incidents of death or great bodily harm that occur in police custody.

Also available is data related to citizens’ complaints of police misconduct. COPA has upped its rate of recommendations for discipline based off these complaints in recent years; 42 percent of misconduct allegations were “sustained” in 2019, compared to just 18 percent in 2015.

“The government has a duty to ensure that deprivation of those rights is subject to the greatest scrutiny,” Roberts said. “Police reform cannot happen without a civilian oversight and accountability system.”

Still, COPA faces “many barriers” to holding police accountable, said Data 4 Black Lives analyst Trina Reynolds-Tyler.

Reynolds-Tyler also questioned the agency’s ability to enforce its recommendations, as the Police Department and Chicago Police Board have the final say over discipline.

She praised COPA for drastically boosting its rate of discipline recommendations, but she said true accountability doesn’t seem possible under the current system.

Even when misconduct is found, families often end up choosing between a financial settlement or pressing charges against the offending officer — neither of which create systemic change, Reynolds-Tyler said.

“Justice does not look like people being in prisons or jails,” Reynolds-Tyler said. “Accountability looks like firing officers and investing that into communities that have historically been divested from.”

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