I teach source security at Northwestern’s Medill journalism school. Here’s my course outline


Image from my 2015 cover story in In These Times magazine about working with whistleblowers.

This spring, I was commissioned by Northwestern’s Medill journalism school to prepare curriculum for, and come in person to present, a workshop on source security. The resulting workshop’s outline was audited by Micah Lee, security researcher and journalist at The Intercept, and features helpful interjections from Lee throughout.

If you want to learn more about the nitty-gritty of protecting sources, read the PDF outline above. I’ll likely be back to Northwestern to teach the workshop again this fall.

Why I’m asking for a mayoral candidate (and 12 others) to be held in contempt of court

In case you’re writing a news story and would like to speak with me about these matters, please reach me via phone—I have the encrypted app “Signal”—at 740-505-0038 or via email at hey@brandonsmith.com. Here is the press release my attorneys and I have dropped.

In case you don’t know me, I’m the journalist who sued the city of Chicago in 2015, forcing the government to release the video of Laquan McDonald being shot and killed by former police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted on a charge of second degree murder in October 2018. I am currently reporting for ProPublica and split my time between Chicago and Washington, DC.

I’d like to explain two legal motions my attorneys, Matt Topic and Josh Burday, recently filed on my behalf in ongoing cases regarding the murder of Laquan McDonald and documents that surround it. I feel it necessary to explain myself because journalists don’t usually ask a court for judgement for or against someone. We’re generally here to report, not to advocate. I’m doing so now only because I believe the future of the Illinois transparency law to be at stake. The violators of this law in this case are blatantly flaunting it and flaunting a judge’s ruling.

First, Topic, Burday, and I filed a motion today asking judges to vacate a protective order, AKA “gag order,” in a case connected to Laquan McDonald. This will allow my FOIA requests regarding the case (and people involved in them) to be properly processed. The case is commonly known as the “conspiracy” case, People v. David March, et al. This bench trial resulted in acquittal handed down from Judge Domenica Stephenson on Jan. 17. It makes sense that the public be able to view documents surrounding the now-finished case.

The other motion we filed is in our own FOIA case in civil court, where we attempted—and won a judge’s order—for people involved in the Laquan case to search their text (SMS) and email records from personal phones and email accounts. (City-issued devices and accounts had already been searched at court order years ago, and didn’t produce too much news.) Judge Raymond Mitchell ruled in our favor on August 2, 2018, ordering the individuals we know were involved in the Laquan McDonald matter to conduct these searches. Here’s what these people actually did:

  • 10 of 18 individuals, including Jason Van Dyke, Garry McCarthy, and John Escalante, said they wouldn’t do the search, in defiance of the judge’s order.
  • 3 of 18 didn’t respond to the city’s repeated contacts informing them of the order and their requirement to search.
  • 3 of 18 seemed to perform searches and claimed to have found no responsive records, i.e. records about the Laquan case.
  • 2 of 18 could not be located or contacted to inform them of their court-ordered duty.

On my behalf, on January 15, 2019, my attorney (Matt Topic) wrote the attorney for the city of Chicago, Amber Ritter, asking:

“Can you confirm that you informed all of these people that the Court ordered them to provide any responsive records to the City? Is there any more detail you are able to provide about precisely what you said and what they said?”

Ms. Ritter’s response:

“I can confirm that I informed all of these people, or their attorney as indicated, about the contents of the order.”

The detail Ritter provided for each person, included in the list I’ve made below, is the only detail she was willing to give.

At least 13 people, including a current mayoral candidate—former police superintendent Garry McCarthy—are defying a judge’s order and they know it. Civil contempt of court in Illinois can mean a jail sentence until the jailed person agrees to comply with the order.

If I said nothing in response to this behavior, it might send the message that I don’t care about the Illinois FOIA law. Clearly I believe in the power of the Illinois FOIA. Since 2014, I’ve battled the city of Chicago for violating the FOIA in maybe half a dozen cases (depending on how you count them). In service to trying to uphold this law and obtain documents for stories in the public interest, I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading often, um, dry, legal material. My attorneys have risked their work product, because I typically don’t pay them myself. I believe, and a lot of evidence backs it up, that this law affords every Illinois resident a power over those who govern them that no other law, rule, or norm does. Luckily, journalists typically allow one another to advocate for transparency, as I’m now doing.

(To be clear, in addition to transparency, I’m comfortable with journalists advocating for a few more basic things, including an evidence-based approach to governing; democracy; fairness; and equal justice under the law.)

I don’t know why these people are refusing this judge’s order. But as a journalist, I’m put in a strange situation. I have to report back to the judge that these people have refused to search as they’ve been ordered to. Typically with such a report, a plaintiff and their attorney will recommend to the judge what course of action the plaintiff prefers. I don’t want to allow these respondents’ blatant disregard for the FOIA to be the crack in the dam that allows it to disintegrate. If I want to not risk weakening the transparency law, the respondents—including mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy—have essentially tied my hands. I must recommend they be held in contempt.

I am told judges typically issue a daily fine for transparency-related contempt rulings, prior to the ultimate penalty allowable, which is jail time.

If it was these peoples’ intention to make me advocate for something publicly, I suppose they have succeeded. And yet for this advocacy, I’m not and won’t be made ashamed. I know I wouldn’t be allowed to blatantly ignore a judge. These people—maybe especially the mayoral candidate, given the public status of his personal ethics—shouldn’t get to choose whether or not they follow a court order.


Responses per individual

Jason Van Dyke — Via his attorneys, said he is “not willing to search for or produce any such records.”

Garry McCarthy — Police superintendent at the time of Laquan’s murder, and current mayoral candidate. Did not respond to Ritter’s request asking him to search as of January 15, 2019.

John Escalante — As of Dec 18, 2018, Mr. Escalante, formerly acting CPD superintendent and current police chief at Northeastern Illinois University, told CPD’s lawyer that “At this time I will not be conducting a search of my private emails or text messages.”

Joseph Walsh — Van Dyke’s partner the day Laquan was murdered. Walsh is represented by attorney Tom Breen. Breen initially told Ritter that he “doubted that his client would be willing to search for or produce any such records, but that he would call me back if that was not the case. Since that time, I have called him multiple times and left messages asking for a return call, and he has not called me back.”

David March — March is represented by attorney Jim McKay. McKay initially told Ritter that he “doubted that his client would be willing to search for or produce any such records, but that he would call me back if that was not the case. Since that time, I have called him multiple times and left messages asking for a return call, and he has not called me back.”

Thomas Gaffney — Says via personal attorney Will Fahy that he is not “willing to search for or produce any such records, and cited (his) Fifth Amendment rights.”

Joseph McElligott — Says via personal attorney Jennifer Russell that he is not “willing to search for or produce any such records.”

Dora Fontaine — Says via personal attorney Jennifer Russell that she is not “willing to search for or produce any such records.”

William (Bill) Bazarek – A CPD attorney during and after Laquan’s killing. Says he has no responsive records after a search of his private emails or text messages.

Martin (Marty) Maloney – Declines to run a search.

Lecia Velez — Says via personal attorney Will Fahy that she is not “willing to search for or produce any such records, and cited (her) Fifth Amendment rights.”

Arturo Becerra — Told city attorney Amber Ritter that he “does not have any responsive records.”

Ralph Price – Per city attorney Ritter: “I cannot locate any contact information for him – his last known phone number with the HR departments is disconnected (same number on the ARDC website) and I can’t find him online, either personally or professionally.”

James Roussell — Apparently this man is a “custodian” of some potentially-responsive records but the city’s attorney has not yet let us know whether his records have been, or will be, searched.

Janet Mondragon — Via her attorney, Jennifer Russell, said she “would not be willing to search for or produce any such records.”

Daphne Sebastian — Via her attorney, Jennifer Russell, said she “would not be willing to search for or produce any such records.”

Ricardo Viramontes — Via his attorney, Jennifer Russell, said he “would not be willing to search for or produce any such records.”

David McNaughton — Told city attorney Ritter that he has never had a private email account.

Chicagoans put their police on notice by convicting officer of murder for on-duty actions

I fought Chicago city government in court in 2015 to release the video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being killed by a police officer. After a judge ordered the video released in my case, 405 days after the killing, prosecutors charged the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with murder. A jury convicted Van Dyke October 5.

It’s a strong message, the conviction of Jason Van Dyke. In at least 50 years, no Chicago police officer has been charged with murdering a citizen while on duty—let alone convicted. Judging by this verdict, if more police were charged, more would be convicted. At least a hundred killings a decade by Chicago police have gone without punishment. Without justice, some would say. How can we slow or stop it? I’ve outlined that below.

Laquan had a hard life. He was high the night he was murdered, and walking around, sometimes holding his knife and sometimes with it pocketed. (Talk to people from Laquan’s neighborhood and you’ll learn: guns are for violence. Knives are for protection.) He may have been out to steal a car radio, although he never got ahold of one.

None of this should have meant a death sentence, according to members of the jury that convicted Van Dyke. They found the former officer guilty on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.

“Black boys needed that,” said a member of Laquan’s community, outside the courtroom after the verdict was read. “Black girls needed that.”

That night, Laquan had run away from police for a few minutes before he was surrounded by five police cars, totaling ten officers. When it was clear he wasn’t getting away, he slowed his walk and held his knife. Van Dyke had been following Laquan in a police car, but roughly six seconds after he jumped out, he opened fire, hitting the teen with all 16 bullets in his gun.

Since videos of the incident didn’t come with sound, the prosecution called an FBI expert to identify visual markers to determine how long Van Dyke was shooting. The FBI found “a minimum of” 14.2 seconds. Then they played a video, with sound, of a marksman shooting 16 shots into a target over exactly 14.2 seconds.

The painfully slow sound was devastating—horrifying—to those of us trying to understand how Laquan met his end. Maybe even more than the actual video.

A prosecutor asked the FBI expert: “How would you characterize the rate of fire?”

“It’s a deliberate rate of fire,” the expert said. “It’s methodical. He was taking time to aim each shot.” The prosecutor let that linger in the dead air of the courtroom. You could hear a pin drop.

In years past, several citizens had filed complaints alleging Van Dyke had used racial slurs in their interactions with them. The judge did not allow this to be presented to the jury in his trial.

One in three Americans killed by people they don’t know are killed by police, according to a study published in Granta magazine. The American Journal of Public Health declared that between 2012 and 2018, 8% of adult male homicide victims are killed by police.

Maybe after this verdict, more American juries will stop accepting an otherwise baseless “I feared for my life” by accused officers. And yet, darker-skinned people are still perceived as more scary than the lighter-skinned. If that doesn’t change, the excuse will still work, considering police tend to shoot people of color. Caucasians make up five percent of people police shoot in Chicago, a city that’s 32 percent caucasian.

The video prompted firings of a slew of officials and a slate of reforms is set to be approved by a judge. (Donald Trump’s attorney general says he opposes the reforms.) Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the day before Van Dyke’s trial that he would not seek re-election. Emanuel had raised millions for his campaign and fielded ballot petitioners.

Every story about Rahm’s political prospects since the video’s release had mentioned the name “Laquan McDonald.”

And yet—replacing brass doesn’t replace a system. Police originally lied to the public, saying a single shot killed Laquan. The city and police opposed the video’s release. Offices that sought to hide how the boy died remain. Each worker in them can cite “that’s just how things work” or “I’m just doing my job”—instead of considering oneself, where responsibility lies.

Two witnesses to Laquan’s murder were arrested that night, taken to “central holding,” kept overnight, and intimidated. They were told over and over, according to a lawsuit one of them filed against the city, that “you didn’t see what you think you saw.” Several other witnesses have said they were “shooed away” and that police didn’t take their information.

If Chicago wants to stop police from killing so indiscriminately, Chicagoans need to dismantle officers’ ability to exonerate themselves and hide their colleagues’ misdeeds. When I filed my lawsuit for the video, with an attorney who only got paid by the state when he won, I was washing dishes in a restaurant.

Several, but not yet all, officers involved with protecting Van Dyke face charges in connection.

To police: if the public sees you purging repeat offenders from your ranks, Chicagoans might start to trust you again. And don’t let the Fraternal Order of Police convince you that transparency or accountability causes violence. This has been probed extensively and found untenable. Well-proven solutions haven’t been implemented at scale.

If only Laquan knew that night, as he breathed his last breaths, that his name would galvanize a mindset for an entire city. If only he were here to see it. To file a FOIA request. To march, with his schoolmates, for a better world.

Calloway calls for fired IPRA whistleblower to lead that agency

William Calloway meets with Lorenzo Davis to talk about police discipline–and lack thereof–in late January 2016. Photo by Brandon Smith.
Editor’s note: the following is a lightly-edited press release given to me by William Calloway, who worked with me on the FOIA that resulted in the Laquan McDonald video. Calloway and others are advocating for Lorenzo Davis to head the Independent Police Review Authority.

Community Activists, Leaders, Supporters Demand Immediate Appointment of Former Investigator Lorenzo Davis to Head IPRA

Following the release of the Laquan McDonald & Cedrick Chatman videos, the public distrust when it comes to African-Americans and police relations is at an all time high. Activists believe this is in large part because of little-to-no disciplinary action taken against officers for misconduct. “The Independent Police Review Authority,” responsible for police misconduct investigations,”has let the community down,” says community activist William Calloway. Since its establishment in 2008, there has been over 409 police shootings with only 2 of them being founded “unjustified.”
Lorenzo Davis, a former IPRA investigator, was fired last summer by then-IPRA Chief Administrator Scott Ando, for not changing his investigative findings in the fatal officer-involved-shooting of Cedrick Chatman. After watching the Chatman video when it was released, community members and activists agree the shooting was NOT justified and have questioned why Davis was fired. Activists believe there should be community selection of IPRA’s chief, and that any mayoral appointment will be compromised.
Calloway, who was partly responsible for the release of the McDonald video, and protested for the release of Cedrick Chatman video, has spoken directly to former IPRA investigator Lorenzo Davis. Davis has said he will take into strong consideration being appointed as IPRA Chief Administration once the offer is proposed.

A newly assembled organization called the Community Accountability Council has started to work toward holding elected officials accountable for the acts of political, social, & economic injustices that are plaguing the African American Community. As its first specific demand, it calls for black elected officials to voice their support for appointing Lorenzo Davis as head of IPRA.

——-                                      ———
MONDAY FEBRUARY 8, 2016 @ 6PM STARTING ON THE CORNER OF 87TH & COTTAGE GROVE activist, protesters, and supporters will march onto the office of 8th ward Alderman Michelle Harris, demanding her public support for the appointment of Lorenzo Davis, and protest to hold her accountable for her 100% voting record with the mayor. This will be the beginning of an initiative that will be seen over the next weeks to call for the Black Caucus to support the appointment of Lorenzo Davis as Chief of IPRA.
In the news
William Calloway (773)-301-4682

Newsroom security beefing up…

From a Times article featuring The Guardian’s editor testifying before a British Parliament committee:

Since the revelations, newspapers, particularly those that have dealt with Mr. Snowden’s material, have also had to adjust to a harsh new reporting environment, security experts and journalists said, as governments and others seek secret material held by reporters.

“The old model was kind of like your house,” said Marc Frons, the chief information officer of The New York Times. “You locked your front door and windows, but not your desk drawer, even if it had your passport inside. In the new model, you have locks on everything.”

The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal declined to comment about internal security arrangements.

But Mr. Rusbridger told Parliament that the newspaper “went to more precautions over this material than any other story we have ever handled.”

I don’t fear 30

For years, I’ve sensed a weakness in how I remember my age. I have no memory “device” to help; I haven’t bothered to figure out the math to calculate it, on-the-fly, from my birth date depending on today’s date; and most importantly, it changes every year. The age I memorized last year is now wrong. I had this thought recently: “I could very easily add or subtract a year without even knowing it. I wonder if the age I tell people is right.” But I never cared to check.

For months this summer, when someone asked how old I was, I told them “28.” Because I was under the impression I was 28. Then last week, I saw that a web site thought I was 27. Uh oh, I thought. So into whatever age calculator Google brings up first, I punched my birth date. 27, it said. My nonchalance has made me a liar, though on a matter of little consequence.

I’ve stopped asking people—people who are obviously American, anyway—where they’re from, because their answer gives me little information. Some hippies live in Atlanta and some neocons live in Portland. I feel like it’s the same with age. By 25, you may have lived a lifetime. Others, through repetition and comfort, live 20 years in the span of 40.

Surely on my last birthday, people congratulated me on my correct age. Somewhere between then and now, I shifted forward a year. Wishful thinking, maybe? I don’t fear 30.