We talk about policing, violence, and justice with Jamie Kalven, the reporter who first broke the story of the Laquan McDonald shooting and the founder of the Invisible Institute. Lawyers for Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke recently tried to get Kalven to name his sources in his reporting on the McDonald shooting, but a judge quashed that attempt.
“We live in a broken city. If we are going to find our way forward, we all have to elevate our games. If we see ourselves inside this broken city and caring and loving it, then we have some power.”
Madeleine Doubek: Welcome to Ready Set Gov, the Better Government Association’s podcast. Give us 20 minutes and we’ll give you the past, present, and potential future of a crucial issue for the people of Illinois. From Rockford to Rogers Park, Centralia to Carbondale, our goal is to empower you with the best, nonpartisan, politics-free information so you can connect with your democracy with confidence.
I’m Madeleine Doubek, Director of Policy and Civic Engagement at the BGA and I’m joined by Jamie Kalven, human rights activist and award-winning Chicago journalist who broke the Laquan McDonald story and was responsible for the release of the dash cam video of the shooting. Jamie Kalven has reported widely on public housing and police abuse and is currently developing a base for independent investigative reporting in Chicago at the Invisible Institute.
Welcome Jamie, thanks for joining us on Ready Set Gov.
Jamie Kalven: My pleasure. Good to be with you.
M: Jamie, let’s give people a little bit of context, you describe yourself as a human rights reporter and a community organizer and have suggested before that the city right now is at a crossroads. You said, “I pride myself in knowing Chicago and knowing my way around, but at this point I feel like I don’t know the city.” What do you mean by that?
J: I spent a number of years, well over a decade, immersed in high-rise public housing on the South Side. This immense city within a city particularly on South State Street where there is the biggest concentration of public housing in the country and the biggest concentration of poverty in the country. In a very short historical period, we went through, in the city, a restructuring that only bears comparison with the period after the Chicago Fire and most people were at best only peripherally aware of it.
Imagine we had a Soweto, a township, in the middle of Chicago. In a matter of less than a decade, we razed multiple communities to the ground and practiced forced relocation and created a population of urban refugees who are destabilized in many cases to this day. It completely remapped the city and had a similar impact I think on our moral imaginations, our ability to see certain populations clearly and to see certain issues clearly.
M: One of the issues we want to bring into focus that you have also spent a lot of time and attention on is the relationship between police and some of the neighborhoods where some of that disbursement has occurred. You broke the Laquan McDonald story and fought for the release of that video which reverberates to this day. What went through your mind when you first watched that video?
J: To be clear, you know there were all sorts of people advocating for the release of the video. My role was by virtue of information provided by a whistleblower in law enforcement. I made known the existence of the video and advocated for its release, but then all sorts of news organizations and litigants sought its release formally. By the time the video was released I had been reporting for over a year on the Laquan McDonald case and investigating it and I have to say I probably was less shocked by the video than many people because I had, again with the help of the whistleblower who provided some critical information, I was able to find a very credible, civilian witness to the shooting who had an unimpeded, unobstructed view who described vividly and with precision what we ultimately saw on the video.
I think for me the most personally dramatic moment – if I can use that word in this context – was when I secured the autopsy which is really what broke the story. Sixteen shots, front and back, independent gunshot wounds. Autopsies are extraordinary documents. They’re narratives, and as close as we have to Laquan McDonald testifying as to what happened to him, is the autopsy. I spent many many hours and days with the autopsy figuring out how to effectively report on it and I think that, for me, sort of imaginatively was the vehicle for recognizing just how horrific this incident was.
So when I finally saw the video, I had been there imaginatively with a lot to work with. Curiously, I was probably less – and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that I wasn’t disturbed by the video — but it wasn’t a game changer for me in the same way as was for millions of others.
M: So 16 shots obviously led to months of protest in the streets. It led to calls for police accountability, reform, transparency that we’re struggling to get to, in fullness, today. What does it mean to you? What do we need? How do we balance more transparency and accountability and change in the police department with what is happening in some neighborhoods of Chicago with the violence?
J: Yeah so there are a lot of different ways of coming at that question. The first thing I would say is that we talk about police-community relations as a sort of formula. I don’t think that really captures what’s happened in Chicago post the revelations in the Laquan McDonald case and the political earthquake that occurred. I prefer to think of it as a crisis of the civil order. One of the consequences of that crisis is that there are whole regions of the city and communities that are like failed states. I want to use that term carefully, I’m not reflecting so much on the community, the people living there, as its relationship to civil authority. Our powerful, centralized city: the mayor’s office, the police department, cannot effectuate their ends in various neighborhoods because the rupture between citizens and critically important agencies and institutions of the criminal justice system is so complete and the distrust is so profound. Trust has been destroyed, to the extent to which it existed before, and how legitimacy gets restored to those institutions.
Trust may even be too ambitious word at the moment. You know, how it becomes an entertainable possibility for folks in those neighborhoods that cooperating with the police will benefit them, make them safer, make their children safer is the great question for us. Somebody like me who does the investigative reporting I’ve done in recent years necessarily does damage to the legitimacy of institutions. It’s not an incidental byproduct. I’m not collecting scalps.
M: Let me just stop you right there because I want people to think about that for a second. You as a journalist necessarily do damage to institutions in Illinois.
J: To the perceived legitimacy of institutions and at this moment, and I feel this as a journalist as well as a citizen, the great question, the fascinating question, the question that warrants the same kind of rigor and scrutiny that we as journalists bring to exposing wrongdoing is how do those institutions regenerate credibility and legitimacy and there are some reporters who would say, “that’s just not our job. Our job is to expose the malfeasance and the wrongdoing.” I would argue that it is equally important to be bringing the same skill set to reporting on and inquiring into how institutions are restored. It’s not in any of our interests to have critical institutions which are broken and crippled, right?
People are dying. People die unnecessarily when there is that profound disconnect between citizens and key institutions. So in the neighborhoods most affected, the clearance rate on murders is abysmally low. It’s low citywide and by any comparative national metric, it’s low. In some of these neighborhoods where the violence is most intense, it’s extraordinarily low. So you have, with respect to shootings, and I’m not sure whether this is citywide or particular narratives, but the closure rate on shootings, by which I don’t mean a random discharge of a weapon but when metal enters flesh, is on the order of 5 percent. That means 95 percent impunity for shooters. This is a catastrophic situation created in no small measure by failures of public policy and we need to find our way back from this.
M: You talked earlier about not wanting to have broken-down institutions and about rigor and so, to be fair and clear, lots of reporting has blossomed up since Laquan McDonald. One of the things that have come to light is that really it’s a small percentage of the police force who have the bulk of the disciplinary histories.
J: That’s a critical point and I’m really glad you brought it up. We struggle all the time. In 2014, I was the plaintiff in a lawsuit, Kalven v. Chicago, which established that police disciplinary records are public information. So now we have extraordinary amounts of information and at the Invisible Institute, the organization I’m associated with, we created something called the Citizen’s Police Data Project and it allows for various kinds of analyses and looking at patterns and it confirms what we knew at a more anecdotal level, which is that a relatively small percentage of the department, still a significant number of individuals, but a relatively small percentage accounts for the lion’s share of citizen complaints of wrongdoing. It’s a critically important point and it’s a surprisingly hard point to convey. It’s diagnostically so very important. The fundamental problem is that a relatively small number of bad actors – and I’m not saying a few bad apples, which is a way of dismissing the problem; saying it’s just individuals, it’s not. Let’s say it’s 5 percent of the police force that is, given the chance, disposed or inclined to be abusive. If those individuals can act with impunity, without fear of being identified, disciplined or punished as appropriate, their impact is immense. Their impact on families, communities and on the institution of the police department. And that’s what we’ve seen. One car of 5 gang tactical officers who are openly racist and corrupt can alienate a whole community from civil authority. It’s a relatively small percentage of the force to the extent that they are allowed and enabled to act with impunity, which has been our history, which we can absolutely document with the kind of data we have. They have a vast and profound impact.
M: So what do we do about that?
J: We hold them accountable. We now have had two … reports and diagnoses and sets of recommendations about reform in Chicago. The Police Accountability Task Force that was appointed by the mayor which was perceived by many people as sort of “scandal management” is not gonna go anywhere. It actually exceeded all expectations and actually did some good work. Then the DOJ report that was rushed on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. We have all of these. In each case, more than a hundred concrete recommendations and prescriptions for reform. Many good ideas. One single thing has priority, which is accountability. Individuals who are known to shame and tarnish the badge who engage in criminal activity, who are abusive of the people they should be serving, need to be disciplined. People need to see that. Until that happens consistently and people have confidence in the formal processes by which accountability is enforced, then all the other good ideas are undermined or impeached. Accountability has priority.
M: So we’re seeing more reporting on the fact that that’s not happening. At the same time, we’re also seeing the city settle many, many more multi-million dollar lawsuits involving police violence against citizens. Are we making any progress in that regard?
J: I think we are making progress and it’s difficult to assess. I personally believe, having worked on these issues for many years, that this is an extraordinary moment, an extraordinary opportunity, a kind of historic opening where if we can rise to it, we have a chance to, not just tweak institutions and processes, but really grapple with some of the fundamental and defining issues in American life. Which are issues of race and of racial justice. We were talking about impunity before, at the end of the day, the biggest factor conferring impunity on abusive officers is the social status of their victims. Until we create conditions of greater equality there will always be that space for abuse. So this is a huge opportunity in all of our different capacities. I have a police officer friend who said to me some time ago, “We live in a broken city.” I think that is a powerful image in part because if we live in a broken city, we all live in a broken city. It’s not just the police and the institutions of law enforcement and the people in the communities most affected by the violence and police abuse; we all live in a broken city. If we are going to find our way forward as a city, we all have to elevate our games at this moment.
M: That’s a great thing to spend some time thinking about. As we tape this, you have just come through a bit of brokenness yourself in court in the Laquan McDonald case. Jason Van Dyke’s lawyer subpoenaed you and tried to get you to reveal your source. Judge Vince Gaughan just this week decided that wasn’t going to happen. What was that experience like for you and when you talk about a broken city and how we all are a part of it, what should people be concerned about with what just happened?
J: It was a somewhat surreal experience. I’ve been in this situation before in federal court, having my notes subpoenaed and such. With this, it certainly was welcome a couple of days ago to have the judge order the subpoena quashed. But the process had gone on for some time and really constitutes harassment of a journalist because there was no factual basis, no evidentiary basis for issuing this subpoena in the first place. There were these elaborate fictions about my role, that I had colluded with the FBI, that from the start my reporting was an anti-police agenda. It was the kind of a fake news account of my reporting on the Laquan McDonald case. Somehow, with the existence of the video, eyewitnesses dropped out of the narrative. I was given this vast power to have shaped witness testimony and manipulate things, but I never felt in great jeopardy. I had incredible support. I had great legal representation by Matt Topic, who is the BGA lawyer. I got support from major media organizations across the country. There was a statement of support that was circulated that hundreds of people signed. I never felt alone in this.
I think what’s worrisome about it is this: Think about reporters in other settings where the case and the occasion is less widely known, the reporter less visible, legal resources not as readily available. This is a story that everybody recognizes the importance of the reporting, but even more the role of the whistleblower in alerting that to me and all of us to the existence of the video and the nature of the shooting. This was a dramatic instance and I got a lot of support, but do we want to live in a society, and I think we are moving in that direction, where any reporter who writes about a case is at risk of being hauled into court, threatened, harassed as a legal strategy for changing the subject or for creating some kind of smoke screen. I don’t want to over-dramatize what happened to me, but there is something worrisome about it. Less for people in my position than for some young reporter not yet widely known who there may be a similar set of facts and that person doesn’t have support or resources. We all need to think about that going forward. This is not gonna be a very friendly era for the press both in terms of the sort of “fake news” and attacks on the press as a way of deflecting other kinds of issues. It’s been happening for many years, but now accelerating a kind of constitutional counterrevolution in the courts where the courts are going to be less and less reliable for vindicating First Amendment rights when they are challenged. So it’s up to us.
M: As we all navigate this broken city together what three quick things ought we be ensuring happens so we can all repair and come together?
J: I think the central requirement to realize the opportunity that we have to engage with and address what I think are the defining issues in American life around racial justice that radiate out in all sorts of ways that release toxins in all sectors of our society. We have an opportunity to engage with that through the process of so-called police reform.
First, it’s important to see that as something larger. It really is a crisis of the civil order. If we don’t get this right, then our cities are failures, basically, and by extension, our society and our democracy. It’s that fundamental. We have an opportunity and a concrete process of practical politics.
That brings me to my second point, which is that this is a long slog. It needs to be understood as such. People need to bring that kind of energy and political will to it.
My final point, and I see this as a danger but also a kind of adventure we have available to us, it’s critical that people maintain a sense of civic morale, a sense of possibility, a sense that we can have an impact, a sense of agency. Where authoritarian regimes take off and thrive is when people become demoralized and disengaged. There’s a term that central European activists — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary — used to describe that phenomena. I think it’s a great danger. The term they used was “internal emigré.” People who, because public life was so appalling under totalitarian regimes, this kind of glaciated, gray world created by that form of government. People would withdraw and retreat into private life. They didn’t change their addresses. They didn’t go to another country, but they became internal emigrés. I think that’s a danger for us because of the appalling quality of our national politics and political discourse. The thing I most feel is that people should take heart and have a sense of a historic occasion and possibility. If we don’t have that, then we are in some ways complicit. We give power carte blanche if we don’t do what we can do.
The final thing I would say, and it goes to the image of a broken city. If it’s a broken city, we all live in a broken city. The problem doesn’t exist apart from us. I say that not as a matter of reproach, but a matter of possibility. If in fact, these problems don’t exist apart from us, if we are implicated in terms of where we put our energies, where we direct our attention, then we actually have some power and some agency. I think reckoning with that, seeing ourselves inside this broken city, caring about it, even loving it, is empowering.
M: Jamie, thank you so much for your powerful thoughts today and for being with us and sharing your time. We appreciate your being a part of Ready Set Gov.
J: My pleasure. Thank you.