Invisible Institute’s database makes police department records accessible to citizens

By Isaiah Colbert, Echo Magazine

Camilla Forte
Editor’s note: This article is one in a series of stories from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine,  featured this summer on the Chronicle site.

Outside the home of Mayor Lori Lightfoot one summer night, a single voice cut through the clamor of protesters wearing face masks and brandishing poster boards, demanding the Chicago Police Department be defunded and officers be removed from public schools. Through a megaphone, one protester standing in front of Lightfoot’s house rattled off the complaint history of two officers, using information from a public database on her phone. A sea of boos erupted as those officers walked away from the police line blocking the protesters from the house. 

The database she used was the Citizens Police Data Project created by the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism production organization focused on holding police officers accountable to the public.

When Trina Reynolds-Tyler, the director of data at the Invisible Institute, started working there in 2006, the first thing she did was look up the Black police officer who had the most complaints on the database.

Reynolds-Tyler says she believes an abolitionist approach is necessary to solving the issue of police abusing their power, rather than solely having more Black cops. The word “abolitionist” enrages some, much like the phrase “defund the police,” because of its blunt phrasing and radical implications.

As an abolitionist herself, Reynolds-Tyler says abolitionists seek out the root cause of violence, crime and conflict in communities, through communication with its citizens and as well as those who have the power to perpetrate violence with impunity.

“A system that is currently built around police is not built for accountability,” Reynolds-Tyler says. “It never has been.”

When former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke murdered Laquan McDonald in 2014, Reynolds-Tyler says besides wanting him in prison, people also wanted to make sure they never again saw the conditions that led to Black people like McDonald being murdered at the hands of police officers.

Through her work with Black Youth Project 100, a Black activist group focusing on Black, feminist and LGTBQ+ issues, Reynolds-Tyler believes in building a world where all people have the same resources and opportunities in accessing police data records, while also being able to live free of being accosted by police officers.

The CPDP transfers misconduct data directly from the city and creates profiles of active and former police officers in Chicago. Since its launch in 2015, the CPDP has been used more than 1.2 million times by users who have used it to download 88,000 case documents.

One way the Invisible Institute has made sure police complaint stories are more complete, rather than just taken from the police department’s documents, is through the creation of the Chicago Police Torture Archives. Using the archives, viewers can see the faces of Black men who were tortured by former police Commander Jon Burge in the 1970s and 1990s, and hear them recount their stories in haunting detail through audiotapes and candid pictures of the survivors.

Rajiv Sinclair, director of the CPDP, says the group relies on its own categorization of repeat offenders and complaint summaries, as opposed to the bureaucratic jargon and classification used in police reports. By implementing everyday language, the CPDP goes beyond the complaint summaries from official reports and filters them in a more comprehensive way on its database.

“As time goes on, we are learning how much information we don’t have access to and how much information gets lost in the game of telephone when they are passing along complaints,” Reynolds-Tyler says.

The CPDP is unusual, in that it makes data accessible in a way that many other cities’ data is not. Chicago’s police records were made available to the public due to a lawsuit filed by Jamie Kalven, the executive director of the Invisible Institute.

“What’s really important about the CPDP is that you get an opportunity to not only understand big top-level databases, but you also get access to the narratives of so many people who have reported their negative interactions with police officers,” Reynolds-Tyler says.

Kalven says making this information readily available was not only beneficial to the public, it also made the information more accessible and usable to police who did not have access to the complaint records of their fellow officers.

Public defenders can check their phones, bring up an officer’s profile on the database, and undercut the officer’s credibility in a preliminary hearing, Kalven says.

Sinclair says the CPDP made previously buried information that dates back to 1967 accessible to the public and police officers within the department.

Officers have approached the CPDP on occasion to report errors of information that Kalven and Sinclair say are due to input errors by the police department.

The uphill battle for public records can be achieved in smaller jurisdictions through city government, Sinclair says.

“I think in a lot of cases, [the] city government has a very difficult time imposing anything on the police department,” he says. “That’s one of those few changes that hasn’t happened at the state level, through changes in law or major lawsuits.”

Kalven says the CPDP has led to change within other Chicago agencies as well.

“The Citizens Office of Police Accountability, [which] investigates police shootings and excessive force, has adopted a set of practices that were prompted by CPDP,” Kalven says. “The same thing with the inspector general’s office.”

Kalven says once someone has police complaint information, they can reproduce the work done by the CPDP without having to develop the data in an Excel spreadsheet.

Reynolds-Tyler says she has seen how individual narratives are treating incidents of stop and frisk as isolated events, and how data points blame the victims who have been traumatized by police violence.

To ground herself, Reynolds-Tyler says she takes breaks from her work, so she doesn’t become desensitized by the egregious details in the police complaints.

“I always [say to] put yourself in the shoes of the individual who experienced those things and think about [what it would have been like if I] had a police officer use a racial slur when talking to me, degrading me, or illegally detaining me in the middle of winter in Chicago,” Reynolds-Tyler says.

The 2021 issue of Echo will be available this summer on newsstands across campus, and PDFs of all issues are available online.