Practitioner-in-Residence talks police cover-ups, accountability

From covering the death of a Chicago teen to the importance of ethical policing, Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Practitioner-in-Residence Jamie Kalven covered an array of topics related to government accountability during a public lecture as part of Kenan’s “Cover-ups and Exposés” series Feb. 8.

Kalven, who won a 2015 George Polk Award for Local Reporting after breaking the story of Laquan McDonald’s death, spent time on campus meeting with students and faculty discussing issues of accountability, abuse, impunity and institutional denial. During his talk, Kalven examined the cultural and moral implications of each topic through the lens of his reporting. What he found in recent years, he said, are questionable behaviors ingrained “in the DNA” of the institutions created to help Americans, from aspects of racism to shielding those in power.

“The process of building more credible and transparent systems has only partially advanced,” he said. “The challenge now is to figure out how to heal. To do it without lying about the realities. To do it without receding from intermittent clarity about underlying systemic conditions.”

Kalven saw this difficulty first-hand in his uncovering of McDonald’s death. In October 2014, Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke shot the teen 16 times, but it wasn’t until Kalven successfully issued a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain McDonald’s autopsy report that the narrative created by the department became clear. In the following months, Kalven learned how officers worked to lead witness reports and craft a story implying that McDonald was responsible for his own death. Through his reporting, Kalven found the opposite occurred, and before Van Dyke shot McDonald, the teen was acting calmly with first responders.

“What becomes apparent at this point is what the investigators are doing as their essential function, as they understand it, is actually not to figure out what happened, it’s to figure out how to justify what happened,” Kalven said. “That orientation is so strong it raises the possibility that the gravitational field of institutional imperatives is so powerful that they don’t actually see the wrongdoing. What they’re contending with is a problem to be solved in the interests of the institution.”

In the aftermath of uncovering the truth behind McDonald’s death, city leadership created the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired and thousands of pages of government emails were released, showing a concerted effort among officials and administrators to create a unified narrative of the incident.

Kalven warned that kind of behavior isn’t out of the norm and in order to create a more connected and informed society, it will be important for all people – from citizens to those in power – to expand their knowledge, understanding and empathy of the world around them.

“The challenge is to break into people’s moral imaginations,” he said, “to elicit their fellow feeling, to somehow subvert the stories they already know so there’s some space for perception.”

Kalven’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Forum for Scholars & Publics and Department of Political Science.