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2016 / Jamie Kalven

Jamie Kalven, a journalist and human rights activist, who has long reported on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, is the 2016 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize.

Kalven played a central role in exposing what really happened the night Laquan McDonald was killed. In reporting that appeared ten months before the fateful release of the video footage, he challenged the official account of the shooting by police, having secured the autopsy report that revealed the 17-year-old had been shot sixteen times and located a civilian eyewitness.

As founder and executive director of the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based journalistic production company, Kalven also oversaw the recent launch of the Citizens Police Data Project, an interactive database housing 56,000 civilian complaints against 8,500 Chicago police officers — information he secured after a lengthy court battle.

The police disciplinary data enabled Kalven and his team to draw a statistical portrait of impunity: 96 percent of complaints were unsustained and resulted in no disciplinary action, and just 10 percent of the force triggered 30 percent of the allegations.

The data also reveal patterns of racial bias. Black Chicagoans filed 61 percent of all complaints in the database, but make up only 25 percent of sustained complaints. White Chicagoans, who filed 21 percent of total complaints, account for 58 percent of sustained complaints. Black officers, they found, were twice as likely as white officers to be disciplined for a complaint.

Two weeks after the Citizen Police Data Project was launched, a judge ordered that the long-sought dash-cam footage of the McDonald incident be released. The video showed Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke repeatedly shooting McDonald, impeaching the official narrative that McDonald had lunged at officers with a knife and corroborating Kalven’s reporting. As a result, for the first time in 35 years, a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty shooting.

In the ensuing media storm, the Citizens Police Data Project provided critical context about Van Dyke’s record of undisciplined complaints, revealing an alleged pattern of excessive force and racial slurs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who has since faced fierce calls for his resignation — fired police superintendent Garry McCarthy and Scott Ando, head of the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency that investigates police misconduct complaints in Chicago. Soon after, a wide-ranging federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department was announced.

The Citizens Police Data Project is the result of years of work, dating back more than a decade to Kalven’s reporting from an embattled public housing development on the South Side of Chicago, where he told the story of Diane Bond, who was repeatedly abused by a group of officers known to residents as the “Skullcap Crew.” With Kalven’s help, Bond brought a federal civil rights suit that ultimately culminated in a landmark ruling by the Illinois appellate court in Kalven v. City of Chicago, holding that police misconduct records belong to the public.

The Kalven precedent affords citizens and journalists unprecedented access to information and enables enhanced public scrutiny of the police. The legal battle over transparency, however, continues. The Fraternal Order of Police is seeking to bar the City of Chicago from releasing to Kalven police disciplinary records going back to 1967. The union argues that such a release would violate their contract; they argue that police misconduct records should be destroyed after five years. The case is on appeal in the Illinois appellate court.

“Jamie Kalven has for decades fought bravely to protect truth-tellers while as a journalist helping amplify their stories,” said the Ridenhour Courage Prize selection committee. “The Citizens Police Data Project, designed in collaboration with the University of Chicago Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, serves as a national model of transparency and accountability. It made public last year a database of 56,000 misconduct complaint records for more than 8,500 Chicago police officers. Kalven’s incisive reporting in Slate’s ’16 Shots gave voice to a courageous source who revealed the official police narrative’s cover-up in the shooting of Laquan McDonald. The still anonymous Whistleblower disclosed the existence of the dash-cam video of the shooting that ultimately resulted in national outrage.

“We are honored to award Jamie Kalven and the Invisible Institute the 2016 Ridenhour Courage Prize for this potent combination of fearless reporting and proven human rights advocacy.”

“To be included among those who have received the Ridenhour Courage Prize is at once a great honor and an inspiration for the work that lies ahead,” said Jamie Kalven.

Kalven’s work has appeared in a wide variety of publications. He is the author of Working With Available Light: A Family’s World After Violence and the editor of A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America by his father Harry Kalven, Jr.

2016 Courage Prize Speech

Transcript of the Courage prize introduction and speeches

WESLEY LOWERY:  Thank you all so much for having me. It’s a true honor to be able to help present this award to a colleague and someone I consider a friend. And I’ll also note that Jill Leovy, whose book was remarkable, was once very briefly my editor at the LA Times and was working on the book then. So it’s very exciting to see her work honored as well.

From February 9th, 2014, through the end of that calendar year, there was no topic that more captivated the nation and that more dominated the media than that of police violence. We know the names; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Gardner in Staten Island, John Crawford in Beaver Creek, Ohio, Tamir Rice in my home town of Cleveland. But at the same time, there’d been a killing in Chicago and, frankly, then we didn’t know that name. A young black man by the name of Laquan McDonald.

We didn’t really know his name, the police said he charged officers with a knife. And that story, really, in one of the media capitals of the country was not covered, besides the initial reports; essentially stenography of the police version of events. Like too many instances of police violence, there was little skepticism of the account, which quickly just faded out of the public consciousness.

That was until Jamie Kalven began making his calls. Armed with a good source and a hunch, he began knocking on doors and tracking down witnesses who the police said didn’t exist, witnesses who they had not taken statements from. He filed a records request, and he secured an autopsy report. He heard there was video and he litigated to force the City of Chicago to have that video released. That work, that courageous work, taking on the powerful Chicago Police Department and their team of lawyers in the name of truth and transparency, made a difference.

Laquan McDonald had been shot 16 times. He was not charging officers. Rather, as the video shows, he was shot as he continued to flee them, bullets continuing to pierce his body as he lay on the ground. Police play a crucial, vital, essential role in our democracy and our society. They keep us safe and they risk their lives. But, we must never forget that they’re an extension of our government. Each person killed by the police has been, in essence, executed without trial or due process. Too often, journalists intoxicated by celebrity, seek proximity to power.

But we have to remember that it is our job as journalists to hold powerful institutions accountable, to ask them hard questions and make them justify their behaviors. Jamie Kalven played a crucial role in assuring that that happened in Chicago and that the family of Laquan McDonald received justice. It’s my honor to present the Ridenhour Courage Prize to Jamie Kalven.

JAMIE KALVEN:  Thank you, Wes. My first reaction when Randy called to tell me I’d been selected to receive the 2016 Ridenhour Courage Prize was to recall a Robert Benchley line my father was very fond of. “You must be thinking of the other Mozart.” [laughter] My second reaction was at once to be honored and humbled to have my name linked with that of Ron Ridenhour and to find myself in the company of past recipients of the prize.

My third, and enduring, reaction is profound gratitude for this acknowledgement of past work that serves as an inspiration for the work that lies ahead. When I first stood at the site of the Laquan McDonald shooting several weeks after the incident, I couldn’t have imagined standing at this podium 16 months later. Nor could I have imagined the extraordinary and mysterious process by which Laquan McDonald’s story has become a public narrative that bears comparison with that of another child of Chicago, Emmett Till. The story has broken through into the moral imagination, providing an avenue for deeper understanding of systemic conditions that give rise to police abuse and impunity. The crime, the execution of a child on the streets of Chicago, is shocking.

Equally shocking has been the institutional response to that crime. While the boy was bleeding out on the street, the machinery of denial went into motion. Evidence was destroyed, witnesses were intimidated, police reports were falsified, public information was withheld from the public. And ultimately, a $5 million settlement was entered into by the city with the family of Laquan McDonald on the condition that the now-famous video not be released.

For 13 months, at every level and at every turn, city officials maintained a narrative about the incident they knew to be untrue. The term code of silence evokes something essential; the coerced silence of police officers who don’t report misconduct by fellow officers for fear of reprisal. And equally, the silence of abused citizens who believe they have no redress.

Yet, the term is also something of a misnomer. For the larger phenomena is not a matter of silence, it’s a matter of narrative control. The code is best seen as a set of tools for enforcing that control. To an extraordinary degree, in the wake of the political upheaval precipitated by the McDonald case, the City of Chicago has lost control of the narrative. [applause] This has created an historic opportunity for real and enduring reform.

As Danielle noted, last week a task force on police accountability appointed by the mayor, issued its report, a sweeping indictment of entrenched racism within the department and a detailed blueprint for reform. The report states, and I’ll quote this extraordinary language again, “The police in Chicago have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” That’s from an official body in Chicago.

Racism is foundational. Issues of police accountability are embedded in the great unfinished business of American life, the blood knot of race. If reform is to run true, we must construct a path forward akin to South Africa emerging from apartheid that leads over time to a different kind of society.

It won’t be easy. While this may prove to be a transformative moment, there are no transformative remedies. Rather, there are an array of concrete measures, reforms, interventions, none of them transformative in themselves, that may in the aggregate begin to change systems and cultures.

It’s yet to be seen whether we’ll be able to rise to the occasion. If we are to do so, we must resist the tendency, in itself a form of denial, to rush past diagnosis to prescription. While it’s imperative to implement particular reforms as soon as possible, it’s also critically important to sustain the process of diagnosis, of truth telling, of public acknowledgement.

The knowledge necessary to fix the system exists within the system, but it’s atomized, scattered, divided from itself. In recent years in Chicago, we’ve broken through official secrecy and established the principle that police misconduct files are public information. We thus have unprecedented access to police disciplinary data. It’s equally important, though, to access information on the ground in the communities most affected by abusive policing, and equally to create conditions such that conscientious police officer do not have to risk everything in order to report misconduct by fellow officers.

This process of public acknowledgement is exemplified by the McDonald case. We would not know the name Laquan McDonald were it not for the civic courage of two individuals who must, for the moment, themselves remain unnamed; a whistleblower in law enforcement who reached out with a tip about the case and a civilian witness, who despite his fears of police reprisals, told me what he had seen. I dedicate this unexpected and heartening award to them. Thank you.