Any list of the most influential reporters on criminal justice reform in recent years would have to include Jamie Kalven.
As Julie Bosman of The New York Times put it plainly, "If not for the reporting of Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist in Chicago, the world might never have known the name Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a police officer as he walked down a street holding a folding knife."
His reporting—including the now infamous exposé in Slate titled "Sixteen Shots" which detailed the results of McDonald’s autopsy and showed how it contradicted the Chicago Police Department’s official report—kicked of a series of events that led to the arrest and eventual conviction of Officer Jason Van Dyke for McDonald’s murder.
Kalven, in addition to being an independent journalist, is the founder of the Invisibile Institute, a "journalism production company on the South Side of Chicago" that serves as an umbrella for a number of journalistic projects. One of those projects is the Citizens Police Data Project, the result of a nearly decade-long lawsuit against the city by Kalven’s Invisible Institute, Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago Law School, and others to turn over police disciplinary data.
"We'd achieved this extraordinary level of transparency (with the lawsuit). These documents are public. They belong to the public, but the principle isn't self-executing. It awaits on civil society to make it meaningful," Kalven reflects, "And so the question for us became, how do we go about operationalizing that principle, making this information legible, useful to citizens in general, and to particular constituencies? The outgrowth of that is something called the Citizen's Police Data Project, which is now a public-facing database that houses, in civil society, these documents, and allows all sorts of lines of inquiry and analysis."
Through the Citizens Police Data Project, anyone can explore nearly 30 years of data from the police department to see trends and patterns. "I think the Laquan McDonald case is really probably the single most dramatic illustration, at least at the moment, of why it's so important that public info be public," Kalven says. The CPDP database showed that Van Dyke, the officer eventually convicted for McDonald’s murder, "had 20-odd complaints against him, citizen complaints, none of them ever sustained, 10 of which were for excessive force," Kalven explains.
Kalven is quick to clarify that this data shouldn’t be used to definitively decide whether an officer is good or bad. "I would not for a moment claim that the disciplinary profile predicted what happened," Kalven clarifies. "But that pattern that emerged from those 20 complaints surely warranted a supervisor and investigator looking to see what was going on with this officer."
The point of projects like this is, Kalven argues, is to aid the public in understanding and holding accountable the institutions that are designed to serve the public.
"One former police executive I know in New York once said that ‘in a democracy, there is nothing as good as a good police officer and there is nothing as bad as a bad police officer’. And that is really the perspective we take," Kalven says.
"The police play an absolutely critical role in a democracy and we vest them with extraordinary powers. The power to stop and detain people, the power to use force, the power under certain circumstances to use deadly force. These are extraordinary powers and in a democracy with power comes responsibility, with power, comes accountability."
He adds, "The moral standard we all need to embrace is to know what can be known, and to act on that knowledge."