Tag Archives: FOIA

Set up a tiny monthly contribution to join in my stories and learn the craft

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Police watch protesters on the University of Chicago campus. Photo by Sydney Combs. (sydneycombs.com)

I set up a “Patreon” page this week. I’m telling my family, friends, and supporters around the country to check it out. I hope you do, too. It allows you to set up a small recurring monthly contribution to my work. Every dollar lets me do that much less work on odd jobs, and thus that much more journalism.

But!

I don’t just offer the warm fuzzies of a donation. Rather I offer a legit product. A product which, if you’re into holding powerful people accountable, you might be excited about. Treat it like a super-cheap education.

The rewards build, BTW, so whatever level you choose, you get all the smaller levels too.

$1: “Office hours” (chat room) access and emailed links when I release pieces or episodes of my forthcoming YouTube series.
$2: Bumped sticker or bike bag button that says “I read journalists who care about all people”
$3: Opportunity to join my book club, “Need-to-know: A woke book club”
$4: Invites to my twice-a-year journalism-wonk parties
$6: First dibs on helping me with stories if you’ve been vetted to do so, and my help in crafting, filing, and responding to two FOIA requests a year
$10: Up to two hours with you in a teach & learn session. I recommend an encryption tools tutorial but the sky’s the limit!

Higher levels give you access to my stories shortly before they’re available to the general public, or access to my story notes once they’re published. If you’re into it, take a look.

The video out, the officer charged, the problem persists

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A press conference to discuss what we are working toward with the release of the Laquan McDonald video. Me at left, William Calloway at the podium, and Dorothy Holmes, right, mother of Ronald Johnson, who was killed by police a week before Laquan McDonald. Thanks to ABC7 for the screengrab.

A lot has happened in the past week, including my column in the Guardian; a New York Times article about me being barred from the press conference my lawsuit precipitated; and a Columbia Journalism Review article about my as-yet non-tethered nature in the news industry.

But here’s the latest.

My lawyer and I are demanding that all documents related to Laquan’s case are immediately posted to the internet. (We’re using #LaquanOnline.) That’s the only way to show the public what they need to know in this rather obvious cover-up. (Kudos to the Washington Post editorial board for not mincing words!) Making everything public is the only way the city will “heal,” as Rahm often likes to say.

We’ve filed a FOIA for everything involved in the case, but we are very interested in the first half of one particular video, if it exists; the video from one particular police car, if it exists; and the mysteriously missing audio from all the tapes. Also, crucially, any statements taken from any officers on scene; and the names of all the officers on scene that day.

But it’s not an isolated incident, as most of us know, and this case finally brought that idea into the sails of major media. In the article linked above, the Washington Post editorial board called for the heads of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. And the Post wasn’t easy on Rahm, either. Said the cover-up likely stretches all the way to him. Ben Joravsky also had an insightful column about Rahm’s position in all this.

In my view, Rahm needs to discuss the data behind police shootings. There’s one per week on average since at least 1986, according to the Reader’s Steve Bogira and copious data. (There are no signs of it slowing, as McCarthy has bewilderingly stated.) And Rahm needs to discuss the concrete steps he’s taking to make sure the shootings slow to a near halt. Not vague references to “culture.”

A good start would be to tear down and rebuild the so-called “Independent Police Review Authority,” tasked with investigating police misconduct. They have historically found virtually no officer at fault. Even a whistleblower has come out and shown (with emails!) that he was asked to falsify his investigations of police misconduct, and he was fired when he tried to push back internally.

We won. Epically. Now we wait.

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Attorney Matt Topic, myself, and activist William Calloway answer questions from reporters at the Daley Center courthouse Nov. 19 after winning our lawsuit against the city. (Obscured is the other attorney on the case, Craig Futterman.) We sought the release of a video that allegedly shows police shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on a Chicago street last year. Our suit accused the Chicago Police Department of using certain exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act without merit in withholding the video. Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered the city to release the footage by Nov. 25.

As this story is ongoing, please see my Twitter feed, @muckrakery, for the latest updates.

Speaking of Twitter, I’ll re-post here a few key items I’ve posted there since the ruling.

9-22:

This weekend, Rahm Emanuel reached out to leaders in Chicago’s black community to try to get black activists to meet with him.

Some black activists undoubtedly will meet with Rahm; others say (via Facebook) that they will not. I don’t blame them.

One black activist says she’s insulted at the invitation, b/c she and others couldn’t previously get a meeting to discuss police brutality.

(I also re-tweeted a link to this well-researched article, “The Laquan McDonald video will not cause violent protests”)

9-20

“The conversation” that the video adds to? It’s the one underpinned by the work has done and continues.

(Responding to some rumors that some news organizations already have the video, either leaked or on embargo) Let’s put it this way: the city has to tell me when they release the video, because I’m the #$&@ plaintiff. I’ll let you know when I know.

It’s our responsibility as journalists to describe what’s really happening. Unvarnished. That’s not “objectivity” (a myth). Nearly opposite.

Perfunctory language, clinical language—like in statements issued by police—ends up obscuring reality. Videos set the record straight.

When policing is done in communities of color, it’s done much differently than in white communities. The data supports this unequivocally.

It’s easy for people in responsibly-policed communities to think “that happens over there.” To not advocate for reform. Folks need a shake.

These are our police. This is our government. We give them their power. And thus, they are ALL of our responsibility.

My case gets air time on WGN

Hearing at Daley Center

My attorney Matt Topic and I discuss our court case against the city for a WGN news crew Oct. 28. Thanks to Andy Thayer for the photo.

Just wanted to make you aware that our case against the city continues. We brought a civil suit against the police department (the city of Chicago, really) because they refuse to release a police-car video of teenager Laquan McDonald being shot dead by a police officer last october. Several other officers watched as one officer shot McDonald 16 times. The officer who fired remains employed by the police department on desk duty, CPD says.

WGN-TV covered our suit last week. I should have something out soon about what we’re arguing versus what the city is arguing. It should be an important case for Freedom of Information law when it deals with law enforcement.

The city is asking for the ability to withhold the video because they are “cooperating” in an “active investigation” into the matter. But they’re hardly cooperating in any meaningful way; they’re just fulfilling their legal obligations. In fact, they shouldn’t be able to investigate themselves–that’s the purpose of the so-called “Independent Police Review Authority.”

FOIA case law also holds that the body denying the public release of material has to prove that said active investigation (if you can call a 12-month process active) would be harmed by the release of that material. If you can’t prove that, you don’t get to withhold the material. And the city’s lawyer told the judge in court this week that he has yet presented no such proof.

Why I’m suing the Chicago Police Department

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Justin Kaufmann, host of WGN Radio’s evening show “The Download,” poses for a quick shot with me after our live segment August 12 about FOIA fails and transparency in Chicago.

In case you weren’t aware, I’m all for transparency, particularly when it concerns police misconduct. As such, I’m suing the Chicago Police Pepartment. It’s an attempt to force them to release the video of an officer shooting dead a 17-year-old black teen last fall.

I recently wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Reader going into the case in greater detail, and why I think police should release the video.

Then, last night, Justin Kaufmann and his producer Pete Zimmerman have me on their talk radio show to discuss the state of transparency in Chicago. (Spoiler alert: transparency isn’t exactly alive and well here.) An mp3 of the audio is available to download at that link.

A big thanks to Justin for letting me talk about what I think is important. He gave me pretty free reign, which is so cool coming from a media company as big as the one he works for. I got to say that I think everyone can and should be filing FOIAs–maybe with the help of FOIA Machine for everyday ones and Muckrock for complex ones. Also I got to mention the case coming this fall, where the Fraternal Order of Police is attempting to force the city to destroy all records of police misconduct from 1966 to 2011.

You’ll hear more from me on that subject. I second journalist Jamie Kalven in calling for the FOP to back down from it’s position, which is at best foolish and at worst criminal. Destroying evidence of a crime is itself a crime, and for rape and murder in particular, there are no statutes of limitations.

Tales from the crypt(-oparty)

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My story on Chicago’s CryptoParty scene appeared on the cover of the Chicago Reader last week.

Thanks for reading, folks. It’s a long piece, so if you get through it, kudos to you. And bravo if you somehow manage to not get lost as you go, with all the techno-terminology. We tried to make it as friendly to novices as we could. Especially the sidebar, about helpful tools.

I guess this makes me Chicago’s crypto educator in chief?

I’d like to paste below a few sections that got cut from the final story. The Reader editors know: people just don’t read long, meandering pieces anymore. It’s either solidly on-topic or people click away.

About the psychological science behind surveillance:

Psychological studies bear out the detriments of surveillance. Knowing or suspecting that you’re being watched definitely changes a person’s behavior, according to several controlled, peer-reviewed studies. Stress and anxiety tend to rise under surveillance, according to a 1996 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And job performance suffers under constant watch, according to a 1992 study in the journal Applied Ergonomics. (While anyone with a helicopter boss could tell you that, a proper study isolated that cause from other potential factors.)

And since the 1950s, psychologists have known that surveillance encourages social conformity in a person even when their larger social group is “obviously wrong,” writes the neuroscientist Chris Chambers, in an article in The Guardian.

About the applications of crypto to whistleblowing:

Conversations at CryptoParty often revolve around government transparency and corporate accountability. Many planners and attendees use freedom of information laws to demand answers from public entities. Their questions are often, but not always, about surveillance. (Institutional racism comes in at a close second.)

But as a transparency tool, the Freedom of Information Act is limited. No one can prove whether an agency is withholding something. There are no audits of FOIA offices or officers. Even if you sue, as I have, judges simply take an agency at its word that it gave you everything it found—and that it searched in all the possible places.

And what about all the things we scribes don’t think to ask, or won’t know to ask? That stuff will only see the light of day if whistleblowers choose to tell someone outside their offices. And in the private sector, forget about it—unless a whistleblower tries to tell the public about a hidden danger. Cryptography can protect whistleblowers’ identities when the government won’t.

If a whistleblower tries to tell the public about a hidden danger, cryptography can protect their identity when the government won’t. These days, governments seem a lot more interested in punishing whistleblowers than protecting them. Just ask John Kiriakou, who, when asked to be a part of the CIA’s torture program, instead blew the whistle on it. Or William Binney, who built the NSA’s surveillance apparatus after 9/11 and saw it get out of hand. Binney narrowly avoided jail. Kiriakou spent time in prison for his classified leaks. Former General David Petraeus, part of Washington’s “in crowd,” was fired for leaking classified information but has not faced any charges.

Protected: Chicago police and their wobbly definition of “search”

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