How mountains of court data exposed Chicago’s unjust dead-end drug arrests

Published on
January 5, 2022

The results of the drug war in Chicago are clear: people who use drugs keep getting targeted with arrests and the justice system continues to make their lives worse while sticking taxpayers with the bill.

The Costly Toll of Dead-end Drug Arrests,” a project by the Better Government Association (BGA) and the Chicago Sun-Times, illustrates this institutional failure of Cook County’s criminal justice system.

Our reporting revealed police in Chicago arrest people for possession of small quantities of drugs knowing the charges won’t stick. There’s an unwritten rule in Chicago among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys that low-level drug cases get tossed out at their earliest stages. We found this practice creates huge problems for people addicted to drugs — especially middle-aged Black men — because they lose jobs, money and freedom.

We started with the data. The BGA had access to 280,000 drug-possession cases over a nearly 20-year period through a consortium of news organizations that created a database called The Circuit.

We scraped those Cook County court records and filled in the holes with other data sources to get a complete picture. Markdown reports and GitHub allowed us to work jointly on the analysis of the data. 

Once we had a large, reliable database, we looked for trends. To get a better understanding of the cases, we examined hundreds of police narratives for low-level drug arrests and made a spreadsheet documenting our findings. The spreadsheet contained rows and columns to help quantify details from the narratives: the type and weight of each drug, the type of arrest (traffic stop, bicycle stop, pedestrian stop), the defendant’s listed gang affiliation, whether the person’s car was towed and other notable details.

We learned some Chicago cops make lots of drug arrests that get thrown out and we formed a theory that they were “bad apples” engaging in unconstitutional or wrongful activity. But as we investigated, we learned the problem was bigger than a few bad apples: We found a systematic problem linked to an informal policy in the courthouse: judges and prosecutors routinely dismiss low-level drug cases, often before they even hear from an officer about the merits of the case.

We set out to interview all the key players in the system: judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops, people who use drugs, people who sell drugs, people who provide drug treatment and harm reduction services, civil rights advocates and legislators.

Our shoe-leather reporting began in a courtroom that a sheriff’s deputy initially did not allow us entry into. After speaking with a judge through a Zoom call, we were granted access and spent a couple of weeks hanging out inside the courtroom where we observed the proceedings (and gathered colorful context that we incorporated into our story) and established trust with key officials. Finally, a judge told us about the unwritten rule. We took ride-along trips with police officers to see what the drug activity looked like from their perspective.

All the while, we tried to apply some of the lessons we learned in our Center for Health Journalism fellowship about how structural racism in America creates uneven health care outcomes — a huge issue when it comes to harm reduction and addiction treatment in Chicago. We even quoted Dr. Anthony Iton, one of the speakers in our fellowship seminar, about structural racism. 

We spent time on the street with outreach workers who provide overdose-reversal drugs to drug users.

We also borrowed some organizational tools from Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi, who spoke in one of our fellowship seminars about their award-winning investigation for the Tampa Bay Tribune about a sheriff who used grades and child welfare records to profile schoolchildren.

They inspired us to amp up our organizational skills. We used Google Drive to store our court records, photos, interview transcripts and data in easily searchable files. We also took each of our interviews and created separate “stories” that boiled all the key information into reports we capped at 750 words. This allowed us to navigate easily through dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of research. 

Because we were working from home and we write for separate news organizations, the ability to work on common Google documents helped us literally “stay on the same page” as we rewrote our drafts over and over in suggestion mode.

We ran into obstacles. During our investigation, we learned social-service agencies aren’t always helpful in lining up interviews with people who use drugs. Privacy issues often get in the way. So we wound up randomly calling people and knocking on their doors to talk to them about their experiences with Chicago’s dead-end arrest system. And we were surprised that many people wanted to share their stories and have a photographer show them in their best light.

But building trust was an exercise in persistence. It meant showing up to courtrooms for meaningless status hearings, learning to overcome disconnected phone numbers by reaching out to families, navigating halfway houses and being very clear about the goals and purposes of our project.

We also got valuable information about Chicago’s illegal drug markets by simply writing letters to inmates serving sentences for drug dealing. Some were happy to correspond via email about how it all works. “Good dope sells itself,” one dealer told us, offering a profound nugget of wisdom about the underground drug economy.

Less successful were some of our efforts to illustrate our work in unique ways. For instance, we were able to shoot drone video of a Chicago neighborhood where the city’s drug arrests are concentrated, but we ran into editorial concerns over “parachute journalism” and “spotlighting” a particular community using technology that law enforcement agencies also use to make arrests. We still used those images in our work, but they were heavily edited and were not featured as prominently as we envisioned.

We also encountered resistance from the Chicago Police Department, which refused to answer our written questions and failed to turn over a body-camera video of arrests of the main subject of our Day 1 story, resulting in a lawsuit the Better Government Association has filed against the city. But, through the Freedom of Information Act, we were able to obtain a body-camera video of the arrest of a different person, which we did use in our report.

With financial help from the fellowship, we also traveled to Oregon to evaluate its new system of ticketing people caught with drugs instead of arresting them. We found that some of the goals of the program, such as moving people into treatment, haven’t been realized yet. The trip allowed us to draw a clearer link between drug addiction and homelessness.

In the end, our year-long project was time-consuming, frustrating at times, but ultimately rewarding. 

We explained how a deeply broken system in Chicago, one that’s churned out dead-end arrests for decades without regard for the lives of people caught in it, lurches on by the force of its own inertia – and that policymakers have done almost nothing to stop that from happening.