Data plays central role in police reform efforts in Chicago and beyond

Police Accountability Task Force chair Lori Lightfoot speaks about the findings of the panel's report at the Harold Washington Library on April 13, 2016.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Police Accountability Task Force chair Lori Lightfoot speaks about the findings of the panel's report at the Harold Washington Library on April 13, 2016.

Over the last 20 years, a data revolution has swept policing, with sophisticated computer programs that track and predict wrongdoing helping police across the country drive crime rates to record lows.

Now that same revolution may finally be coming to police accountability.

On April 13th, a special mayoral task force, appointed in the wake of the Laquan McDonald protests, announced the findings of its investigation into the Chicago Police Department, bluntly declaring that “the community’s lack of trust in the police is justified.”

The task force’s claims rest on a mountain of data, cataloging major racial disparities in everything from police shootings to traffic stops to promotions within the CPD. Their report states that “the CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”

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Data is driving police reform in Chicago and beyond. Nationally, a wave of organizations is beginning to document and quantify police misconduct, sometimes using the same approaches police departments use to track crime. In Chicago, police data compiled by journalists, activists, and academics provided central evidence for the task force’s report. The report’s proposed reforms also lean heavily on data analysis to identify and reduce misconduct, meaning the work done by watchdogs and media organizations could eventually be standard practice within the CPD.

Despite the task force’s sweeping claims, their report provides extensive detail for only one case of alleged police misconduct – the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Instead many of the task force’s key assertions rely on a type of analysis known as “disparate impact,” which examines whether policies and practices disproportionately hurt minority groups in order to prove the existence of discrimination.

Often used in housing discrimination cases, disparate impact has been increasingly applied to police departments, playing a major part in the Justice Department’s recent investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. In New York City, a disparate impact analysis built on sophisticated statistical work helped convince a judge to sharply limit the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” program. Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote that “NYPD officers are more likely to stop blacks and Hispanics than whites… even after controlling for other relevant variables” like local crime rates.

While Chicago’s task force employed a less detailed approach, it also found “significant disparate impacts associated with the use of force, foot and traffic stops and bias in the police oversight system itself. African-Americans make up about a third of Chicago’s population, but 74% of those shot by the police and 72% of those stopped by the police. African-Americans are also far more likely to file complaints, but far less likely to see any form of disciple for the accused officer.

The task force’s conclusions rely on work by a host of organizations in Chicago. The ACLU of Illinois originally released the data on CPD investigatory stops in March of 2015. Seven months later, the Invisible Institute launched an initiative called the “Citizen’s Police Data Project” which provided the data on over 50,000 police complaints.

Nationally, organizations are working on similar initiatives. The Guardian and the Washington Post have both launched projects to track the number of Americans killed by the police. Their work revealed hundreds of police killings not reflected in data kept by the FBI, which relies on self-reporting from local police.  Earlier this month the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for “its revelatory initiative” in creating its database and reporting on the findings.

Meanwhile, the New York Legal Aid Society – the nation’s largest public defender organization – has created the Cop Accountability Project, a database of misconduct claims lodged against NYPD officers. Unlike data projects aimed at the media and the general public, the Legal Aid Society’s work aims to help defense lawyers push back against the police in individual court cases.

Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor who studies police reform and misconduct litigation, says that the last few years have seen “real movement on the data side,” with public concern about police misconduct and easier access to information helping to drive a diverse set of data-based police accountability projects.

Data also plays a central role in the Chicago task force’s recommendations for reform. In stark contrast to the CPD’s embrace of software used to analyze crime trends, the task force notes that IPRA – the police oversight body – “has had the power to examine patterns of complaints when investigating police misconduct, but has not exercised it.”

The task force aims to change that, recommending that new oversight bodies regularly look for patterns of misconduct and use that information to investigate potential abuse.

The report also calls for the implementation of an Early Intervention System (EIS), which uses officer data to predict problematic behavior and allow supervisors to step in. Schwartz sees similarities between an EIS and the crime-tracking software embraced by police departments, noting that “early intervention systems are, in their design, very similar to Compstat,” the crime analysis program used by the CPD.

The CPD originally attempted to launch a data-based EIS during the 1990s, but discontinued the program after a few years. The task force cites lackluster support from CPD leadership and  “opposition from the FOP” for the program’s cancellation.

Given the strength of Chicago’s police union, it remains to be seen how many of the task force’s recommendations will be enacted, but the increasing use of data by media and nonprofit organizations is already guiding serious conversations about the department’s future. As organizations in Chicago and around the country continue to refine databases and programs  to monitor the police, it looks like data is becoming a central part of police reform.

This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.