2018 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Taking Cover

How cops escape discipline for shootings in suburban Chicago

About the Project

For years, policing in Chicago came under deserved scrutiny for often questionable and sometimes illegal shootings by officers.

But just beyond Chicago’s borders, in the suburbs of Cook County, more than 100 municipalities make up a population nearly as large as Chicago’s with police forces to match. Yet no media organization ever examined police accountability throughout this patchwork of villages and towns.

That changed in 2018 following twelve months of work by reporters from the Better Government Association and WBEZ, an in-depth investigation that exposed some police in those suburbs acted as bad or worse than those in Chicago.

The report exposed a massive loophole in how police shootings in the suburbs are handled. Reporters found that since 2005 there had been at least 113 police shootings in suburban Cook County in which officers shot unarmed suspects, innocent bystanders and even each other yet not a single officer involved was ever disciplined, fired or charged criminally. What’s more, only a few of the shootings were even reviewed for misconduct.

While Chicago’s internal process of assessing police shootings had been criticized because few officers were ever fully disciplined, at least Chicago had a system in place to analyze if officers abided by policies and procedures and used best practices. In the suburbs, no internal investigations exist. Instead, police relied on state police investigators who only examined if officers broke laws when they shot a citizen, a much higher bar than reviewing for policy and procedure violations.

The BGA-WBEZ collaboration resulted in a week-long series that included four investigative online stories and five radio segments.

The reporting had almost immediate impact throughout Cook County and the state of Illinois. The Cook County Sheriff, for instance, recognized the glaring ambiguities and quickly issued a memorandum offering assistance to all police departments to conduct administrative investigations. And the Illinois General Assembly took up the issue in its legislative session, unanimously passing a bill requiring all police shootings in the state to undergo an internal review for policy violations or procedural mistakes. That legislation now sits on the governor’s desk waiting to be signed into law.

The collaboration between the BGA, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago, and WBEZ, NPR’s affiliate in Chicago, was a first on this scale for both organizations and we used each our collective skills on multiple platforms to break down a complex story that allowed each piece to complement each other.

The interviews with families affected by the shootings, for instance, were a natural fit for radio while our detailed look at state laws, local policies and procedures, as well as our databases, were better suited for text stories.

The goal throughout all the work was to tell a massive story in an approachable way and the collaboration was essential to accomplishing that goal.