Chicago Police Department partially restores access to arrests data following outcry

The arrest API had been shut down after The Chicago Reporter used it to disprove official claims about arrests during George Floyd protests.

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Photo by Grace Donnelly

The Chicago Police Department has partially restored access to critical arrests data that was removed after the Reporter used it to refute official claims about arrests made in the early days of unrest due to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

The data was made available two days after the Reporter published a story about how access to the API, a tool used by journalists and researchers to do timely  analyses, had been shut down

News of the removal of the API sparked criticism as it seemed to counter the Lightfoot administration’s stated pledges to make city records available “in a user-friendly database with sufficient context to help identify and understand the information.” 

The mayor’s office maintains that the removal of structured data on arrests was a temporary move.

“In no way was this data ever considered to be shut down permanently. In fact, the City has been working for several weeks to create a more transparent version that would not only provide access to the public as well as media but also adhere to the privacy concerns expressed by advocacy organizations,” the City of Chicago said in a statement to the Reporter.

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The new data portal includes anonymized, machine-readable arrest data that would allow the Reporter — and others — to replicate its earlier analysis. However, it only includes four charges associated with each arrest, not a full list of charges as available in the previous data portal. 

For example, one man listed as being charged with 23 crimes in data from the defunct API is listed as having only four charges in the new data. 

The data portal is also missing a small number of arrests that were part of the previous dataset. According to the Reporter’s analysis of the City of Chicago’s open data portal, 57 arrests are missing, a majority of which span across two days — April 24 and April 25, 2020. Over 50% of arrests are missing for April 24th, and over 30% for April 25. The Chicago Police Department is currently looking into the discrepancy, the department said.

After more than a month of waiting and several follow ups for updates, the Reporter has not yet received an official response from the Chicago Police Department to a June 8th FOIA request for communications related to shutting down access to its API request form. CPD asked for an extension in response to another FOIA filed by the Reporter requesting arrest data between 2019 and 2020. Another request for emails sent to and from CPD’s research and development team during the protests has received no response since its submission on June 8th.

Mayoral transition team decries lack of transparency 

The Chicago Reporter’s story on the removal of the arrest API sparked public rebuke from members of the mayor’s transition team on good governance, which had pushed for maintaining the systems already in place surrounding open data, improving them and making new considerations surrounding privacy.

“I felt compelled to say something because, here I was, I had advocated for open data, I was invited to be part of the transition team and then saw this action and it really seemed counter to what we had proposed in that very transition team report,” said Derek Eder, who helped author the section of the Lightfoot transition report focused on transparency through open data. Eder is a founder of DataMade, which consults the Reporter on various reporting efforts and facilitated access to the API through the Chicago Data Collaborative

Eder said that while he had previously heard of the arrest API being shut down, it was the timeline of its removal that pushed him to speak out.

“It just looked like there was retribution for using that same data to call out what looked to be a misstatement or a lie from the police department,” Eder said.

When the arrest API first became unavailable in June, CPD told the Reporter that the tool was being “discontinued” because the site had become “stagnant and [was] not being monitored.” Officials declined to provide an update on the availability of the arrest data when asked for comment on July 8. 

But on July 9, the day after the Reporter published its piece detailing the arrest API shutdown, the department announced on Twitter that a new dataset on arrests would be available the next day.  

“The Chicago Police Department remains committed to transparency and accountability. That is why we have been working on a new, more accessible public arrest data set,” the post said. 

Much of this data is now publicly available on the City of Chicago’s open data portal. Another more detailed arrest dataset requires researchers and news organizations to submit a request for access to the new portal, similar to the API but now managed by the data portal instead of CPD, which had previously been unresponsive to the Reporter’s request. 

Eder said he had privacy concerns about releasing such information too rapidly, which he shared with the administration. The arrest API had contained arrestee names and mugshots. The new public arrest dataset does not include mugshots, while the authorized-only dataset includes arrestee names.

“I raised a flag around not rushing to just publish the data unredacted in any way. We’re talking about arrest data, we’re talking about data about people,” Eder said. “There’s things that could really harm people if that data wasn’t redacted.”

This was not the first time the Lightfoot administration had received criticism for its open data protocols. A March 2020 report from the office of the inspector general found that the city was not in compliance with an executive order governing the Chicago Data Portal. Findings included unexplained missing records, lack of communication from the city about changes and inconsistent data across city websites.

A petition created in response to the arrest API removal called on Lightfoot to stay true to her campaign promises of “radical transparency.” 

“Mayor Lightfoot made a number of promises regarding transparency prior to getting elected and I think that she should be held to honor them,” said Tyehimba Turner, creator of the petition. “I believe very deeply in open governments and I don’t think it’s enough to just say the information is out there, but rather to provide it to the public and to researchers and to people who want to access that information in a way that is most useful for them.”