This is what it’s like to investigate a police department accused of misconduct
I was born in Harvey, Illinois. But when I returned to look into their police department, it was far from a warm homecoming.
By Kimbriell Kelly
The Department of Justice in 2012 recommended that a suburban Chicago police department track officer behavior in order to find officers who might be prone to misconduct, after allegations that officers used excessive force against people.
The Harvey Police Department said it installed the system. The sheriff’s department had its doubts.
Could it be true that the database wasn’t being used? It would not have been the first time. The Justice in its own investigations found departments like Baltimore, New Orleans and Newark operated these systems only in theory, but that they no longer worked.
I decided to investigate. I gave myself three days to find out and booked a flight to Chicago. Here’s the story behind my story for The Washington Post.
Even though I live in Washington, D.C., I was born in Harvey. And while I never lived in the suburb, I went to church there, had friends there and played tennis matches in town against our school district rivals.
One of the city’s aldermen who went to high school with my best friend agreed to show me and Joshua Lott, the photographer for the story, around the area. The alderman, his assistant, Joshua and I all piled into a car, and we were off.
At 12:52 p.m., four hours into our tour, we were at the police station taking pictures when Joshua was approached by a man who identified himself as a police officer. He asked Joshua what he was doing. The man left, and then returned to ask for Joshua’s press credentials. He obliged.
Next, we headed to a neighborhood where most of the homes in the area were boarded up and the grass was overgrown. Joshua and I decided to get out of the car and look around.
Suddenly, two squad cars appeared out of nowhere and boxed us in.
Something seemed odd. The neighborhood was virtually empty. So I took out my phone and began recording. It was 1:07 p.m., just ten minutes after our first encounter with police at the police station.
One officer pulled alongside the driver’s side and said: “What are you doing?” He motioned for the alderman to roll down his window. He told him not to park in the middle of the street and to pull off to the curb. Then, both squad cars drove off.
We headed out of the neighborhood and to the downtown. We parked on the side of the road in front of a local business. As I was taking notes, a squad car again appeared in front of us, facing the opposite direction of traffic. It was 1:19 p.m, twelve minutes after our second encounter with police. The squad car remained there for five or 10 minutes and then left.
At this point, I had been in town four hours and had been stopped or surveilled by four squad cars.
Coincidence? Who knows.
This was only the beginning. I still had to talk to the police chief, who seemed to have been avoiding me. Before the visit, I had phoned and sent e-mails that went unanswered.
I found out there was a board meeting the next night. What better way to talk to a city official than the board meeting where department heads are required to attend?
I arrived early. The chief was there. But before I could get to him, a man intercepted me in the hallway.
“You must be the reporter from The Washington Post,” he said.
He introduced himself as Sean Howard, the spokesman for the mayor and the police chief. We had talked before my visit. As he stood before me, I asked him for an interview with the police chief. He declined, and said that we could set up an interview another time.
I was standing at the entrance of the council chambers, and the chief would need to pass me to get into the room. Surely there were a few minutes he could talk to me.
Howard offered to introduce me, but that was it.
The man I had come 700 miles to talk to was so close and yet so out of reach, and Sean was both figuratively and literally standing in my way.
I was running out of time, and the meeting was about to start. I had to do something, and quickly.
As the chief approached, Sean introduced the two of us and before the chief could continue on his way, I could do nothing but blurt out: “I was born here and I went to school here!”
The chief’s face relaxed, he smiled and then he started to ask me questions. It turns out he knew my old pastor, his son and I went to the same college, and his son now teaches at my high school alma mater.
“Stop by tomorrow morning,” the chief said. The spokesman, as I’m still standing there, tells the chief that I was only saying those things to try and somehow woo him.
Well, yes. But it was also true.
We agreed to meet at 11 a.m.
The next morning, I got a text from the spokesman. He wanted to reschedule, but I told him I’m already on my way. He said the chief forgot about another meeting that was coincidentally around the same time as the interview.
I said I was flying out in a matter of hours and promised to keep my interview short. Howard responded tersely: “He’s not in…unless by phone.”
I was desperate. I hadn’t come all this way for nothing.
“I’m a few minutes away. I can meet him wherever,” I texted.
Something told me to stay the course. I arrived at the department, went to the front desk and told the woman there I had an 11 a.m. appointment with the chief. She picked up the phone, “Chief, your 11 a.m. is here.”
She hung up and said he’d be right out.
But somewhere between the phone call from the front desk and when the chief stepped out to meet me, Howard got a hold of him. The chief apologized and said he couldn’t talk to me after all. He said he wasn’t allowed to talk to talk to the press without Howard present.
“Fine, then he can listen by phone,” I said.
Moments later, I was sitting in the chief’s office, joined by his deputy chief who oversaw the implementation of the early intervention system and Howard on speakerphone. Over the course of more than an hour, the two chiefs walked me through the intricacies of the system. It was functioning.
I asked to take photos as proof that it worked and to better understand the categories that it tracked. I must admit, I was relieved that for the sake of the people who lived in Harvey, the system was operating. But for my story, it was probably a deal breaker. What’s the point of writing about a system that supposedly never got implemented, but actually did?
I called my editor to let him know.
I arrived back in D.C. and went through the photos of the system and re-read my documents about Harvey. After looking over the pictures I noticed a major category was missing. I called the department to make sure I wasn’t missing a photo.
But it turns out I was right.
While the system was installed, a key category that the Justice Department told Harvey to include was missing. For the two years Harvey had been operating the system, it had never tracked lawsuits filed against its officers for misconduct. Among those excluded were two recent suits, one alleging that an officer assaulted a pregnant teenager, causing her to miscarry. The other against the same officer for allegedly forcing a pregnant 20-year-old to have sex after pulling her over during a traffic stop.
The Department of Justice had recommended that they include that category. They didn’t.
The first case settled for $500,000. The other is currently in court.
One month after my visit, the police department informed me that the officer had quit. Two weeks after that, the department told me that they consulted with the city’s attorney and were now going to track lawsuits in their system going forward.
And that’s what I wrote. Read my investigation here.