Murrow-winning investigation uncovers pattern of wrong raids

June 29, 2020 01:30

Unlike novels that neatly wrap up with a period at the end of the last sentence on the last page, real world stories seldom end neatly, and the work of journalism in pursuing those stories is never done.

That’s the primary takeaway from the story-behind-the-story of “Unwarranted,” WBBM-TV’s Murrow Award-winning news documentary and interactive digital story page.

The Murrow Award-winning pieces are just a fraction of the work produced by CBS 2 in Chicago as part of a nearly two-year-long investigation, spanning some 40 pieces. The investigation looks into a disturbing, under-documented pattern of “wrong raids” by Chicago law enforcement, particularly those impacting families with children, and disproportionately affecting Black and Latino families.

It began with a tip from the Mendez family, whose apartment had been, seemingly by error, raided by police, guns drawn. The man they were looking for lived upstairs. The experience left 9-year-old Peter, who had wanted to be a police officer, traumatized and afraid for his 5-year-old brother, and the family looking for justice.

It might have seemed to end with the passage of the Peter Mendez Act in August 2019, which requires police training on deescalation tactics and trauma in children.

But Dave Savini and the CBS 2 investigative team did more than tell Peter’s story.

They talked with more than a dozen families with children who had been affected by wrong raids stemming from bad tips or mistaken addresses – including one family raided three times in four months – pursued answers from city officials and fought long battles to obtain police data. They’re still at it and, despite law and policy changes, wrong raids are still happening.

Multi-platform interactivity and crowdsourcing
One key element of the project, which earned the regional Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation, was an interactive digital story page including a map of wrong raids the team documented.

“The map was especially important because we wanted to visualize where and who the wrong raids are happening to the most – Chicago's Black and Latino communities,” says investigative producer Samah Assad. “Because we found police don't track wrong raids, the interactive page became a place to do just that and continuously hold them accountable.” 

Assad created the map using a “story map” template on arcGIS mapping software, a tool she learned about through the Investigative Reporters and Editors. “That ended up being the perfect tool for this project because it allowed us to build interactive elements like the map, while also weaving in and telling the families’ stories through the use of police records, body camera video and more,” says Assad.

The team also created an interactive form to collect tips from other families who had been wrongly raided. The continuous crowdsourcing became a key source for otherwise hard-to-obtain stories and data. “Because police don’t track wrong raids, they can’t tell the public how often it happens. So we wanted to try and figure that out ourselves,” Assad says, leading to more than 50 documented wrong raid cases, further reporting and calls for change. “Their voices became key in the push for police reform and accountability.”

Transparency baked into the storytelling process
CBS 2 also extensively documented and reported on city officials’ responses – and in some cases lack of responses. When Chicago police finally released search warrant data for 2016-2019, the team published the original Excel data file and a detailed analysis of the information.

“So users can explore each case, we hyperlinked to search warrant documents we obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. This allows the public to see how police failed to independently verify tips from confidential informants in each case,” the team explained on the award entry. “We also believed it was critical to be as transparent as possible with how we produced the documentary and arrived at our findings. This included an in-depth break-out about how the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded to our reporting. This section showcased our repeated efforts to get an interview with police. In addition, we produced a special video that walks the user through each step of our reporting process, from the moment we got our first tip and how the story unraveled from that point on.”

The video interview with Savini discussing the care and empathy needed to talk to children like Peter Mendez about the trauma they’d experienced, and the responsibility with which the team viewed that task, was a particularly transparent and insightful element included on the project’s main page.

Typically the Murrow Monday feature goes behind the scenes of winning work, but in this case the WBBM team baked so much transparency about the process into the published work, I focused on asking the team about what’s happened since the Murrow win. What investigative reporter Dave Savini told me was both frustrating and a powerful reminder of the ongoing job of journalists.

Persistence leads to change but the work is far from over
Asked if the Peter Mendez law and further pledges by police had ended wrong raids in Chicago, the short answer from Savini was no. “Unfortunately despite the new policy and new training Chicago was still raiding the wrong homes in February and we have interviewed those two new raid families.  The new superintendent pledges to stop this behavior and to start tracking wrong raids,” Savini said via email.

The pledge is another addition to a long list of promised changes, investigations and reforms from various city officials stemming from the initial documentary and the follow up:
  • Chicago’s Inspector General launched an investigation on how police obtain and execute search warrants and how wrong raids are tracked.
  • Chicago’s mayor committed to changing the way officers interact with children during raids.
  • Multiple families affected filed lawsuits against the city, including the Mendez.
  • At least one wrong raid is under investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
  • The Peter Mendez law passed and went into effect requiring police training on children, trauma and de-escalation.
  • New language was added to the police department’s search warrant policy to add training on interacting with children, add oversight to the warrant approval process, require body cameras during warrant execution, and track some types of raids.
  • A new police superintendent has pledged to start tracking wrong raids.
  • “Our work has been cited in the University of Chicago’s School of Law’s motions to the federal court monitor for the consent decree involving our wrong raid series and use of force on children”
It took dogged persistence from the CBS 2 team to even secure initial comment from Chicago police, much less an acknowledgement of the extent of the problem or the data to back it up. The continued pressure has created incremental but increasing change.

When covering police misconduct, context remains key
The ongoing reporting following the initial Murrow-winning documentary illustrated a larger problem with raids overall, including a high percentage of “negative raids,” or raids in which nothing is found and no arrests are made. Analysis of the specific officers associated with negative raids found the 12 officers with the most negative raids also “had a combined 446 citizen complaints for brutality, illegal searches etc,” Savini says. It’s another indicator that one type of police misconduct is often just the tip of the iceberg, as several other Murrow Award winning reports have also showed.

The experience investigating wrong raids in Chicago also meant the CBS 2 team was able to add context to reporting about the wrong raid leading to the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, which made national headlines and spurred protests.

Just this June, CBSN Chicago, the station's 24/7 digital streaming network, aired an hourlong special including the original documentary and supplemental reporting on more recent raids and trends.

It’s clear the CBS 2 investigative team won’t put the final period at the end of the final script of the ongoing wrong raids story until wrong raids in Chicago really become a rare occurrence rather than a disturbing pattern. Even then, you can be sure of many sequels as the push for accountability continues.