Uncovering Police Violence in Chicago: A collaboration between HRDAG and Invisible Institute

In 2014 and again in 2020, the Invisible Institute, a Chicago grassroots organization, won lawsuits that granted them access to decades of complaints of misconduct by Chicago police officers. The collection contains hundreds of thousands of pages of allegation forms, memos, various police administrative forms, interviews and testimonies, pictures, and even embedded audio files. The Institute published scanned images on the Citizens Police Data Project, and is using them for a project with HRDAG known as Beneath the Surface, which is a detailed investigation into gender-based violence by Chicago Police.

Image: David Peters

Often, gender-based violence and sexual misconduct by police gets buried through official coding procedures. For example, a complainant may allege that sexual misconduct took place during an “improper search of person.” That entire complaint gets coded as “improper search of person,” which leaves the allegation of sexual misconduct unrecorded, and unsearchable. For that reason, Beneath the Surface works closely with HRDAG and relies upon a team of community organizers, human rights experts, and other community members to read and code extracted allegation descriptions from police misconduct documents in order to give visibility to allegations that would otherwise be lost. The team codes complaints with categories such as “sexual violation,” “home invasion,” “stalking/domestic violence,” “policing parents and children,” “neglect,” “LGBTQIA,” “disabled,” and “use of force.”

This hand-coded information will help build machine learning models that make it possible to process and analyze the entire cache of documents. Tarak Shah, one of HRDAG’s leads on the project, says, “We believe the gender-based violence we’re documenting is made invisible or under-documented. In the last decade we’ve seen new attention to police violence, specifically shootings in public of Black cis men. That’s a very serious thing. We want to make sure that’s not the only police violence that becomes visible.”

Selected readings from HRDAG

Related Resources

The Invisible Institute

The Citizens Police Data Project

Beneath the Surface

“CPD’s Pattern and Practice of Home Invasions”
Article in South Side Weekly

A conversation with Trina Reynolds-Tyler about Beneath the Surface

Other HRDAG projects on criminal justice reform

Our work has been used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations. We have worked with partners on projects on five continents.