Courage Prize Recipient, 2016

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.

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