The Chicago Police Department has come under national scrutiny in recent weeks after a police officer was charged with murdering a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been under pressure to alter the police’s tactics or even resign.
Despite the current national attention, allegations of police misconduct in Chicago have been an issue for years, and they’ve often gone underreported by larger news organizations.
In response, a group of Chicagoans last fall launched City Bureau, a community newsroom on the city’s South and West Sides that helps high school– and college-aged youth to cover their neighborhoods while receiving mentorship and journalism training.
“Those areas, more than any other part of the city, have been disenfranchised over the past 100-plus years. Even though there’s coverage there, it’s often quick, one-hit coverage — parachute journalism,” City Bureau editorial director Darryl Holliday said.
“There’s nothing of true substance about what those neighborhoods represent. Instead of trying to just be a journalist who covers the South and West Side in a better way, I’ve banded together with a few of my friends and we’ve created this group to link together a lot of these unheard or seldom-heard voices with this educational pipeline,” he said.
City Bureau reporters of all experience levels have published stories with various national and local outlets and on their own website. They also held two community meetings last fall and plan to organize two more this month.
City Bureau is structured into tiers, with reporters at all levels contributing to the journalism. The Tier 1 reporters are high school–aged students who have come to City Bureau through Free Spirit Media, a youth media group in Chicago. Tier 2 journalists are college-aged students who have a little more experience. The third tier of City Bureau is made up of early-career journalists who lead groups of reporters from the other tiers and mentor students.
City Bureau hopes that, eventually, Tier 1 participants will graduate into Tiers 2 and 3 and mentor the younger students.
Chelsea Berry, 19, a resident of the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, is one of the participants in City Bureau’s pilot.
Berry, along with two other City Bureau reporters and a mentor, published a video report last month that examines police officers’ rights in misconduct investigations.
Berry said she’s been subject to verbal abuse from a police officer. Another reporter in the group won a $100,000 settlement from the city after an off-duty Chicago detective allegedly attacked and arrested him in 2007, when he was in fifth grade.
The video was posted on Real Chi Youth, a site run by Free Spirit Media. In addition to improving her video production skills, Berry said reporting the story helped her realize that she can use journalism to raise awareness about issues impacting the community.
“Police officers are supposed to serve and protect the citizens,” she said. “When you’re verbally abusing them and physically abusing them, it’s like, what are you here for, if you’re not here to serve and protect? We’re supposed to be able to feel safe around the Chicago Police Department, or any police department, period.”
In the video, Berry and her fellow reporters interviewed Donna Moore, the mother of the boy who was allegedly attacked by a detective, as well an attorney who deals with police misconduct cases. They reported that the officer involved in Moore’s incident has had at least 17 misconduct cases brought against him — though only one, Moore’s, was sustained.
The team accessed the police misconduct information via a database assembled by the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit news organization. The database was first published in 2014 after a seven-year legal battle between the institute’s founder, Jamie Kalven, and the city of Chicago because the city didn’t want the information released publicly.
The database now includes more than 56,000 complaints. The City Bureau team decided to focus its first cycle on covering the role of police in the community because it knew it would have access to the database.
Still, the unfolding situation in Chicago has added a new sense of urgency to the reporting, editorial director Holliday said.
“Nobody could have foreseen what was coming up around issues of policing in the city,” he said. “It just so happens that the city is in absolute turmoil right now. We struck at a very relevant time.”
City Bureau has also run stories with outlets, including The Guardian, DNAinfo, The Chicago Reporter, and the Chicago Reader. Those connections help set City Bureau apart from other youth media initiatives, said City Bureau education director Andrea Hart, who also runs Real Chi Youth.
“The biggest initial difference is this pipeline that we have in terms of allowing young people to have direct access to resources [like The Guardian]. That’s unusual in the youth media landscape in Chicago,” she said. “We’ve had several things published, and it looks as if we’ll have several more.”
The Illinois Humanities Council has worked with City Bureau. It helped facilitate the partnership with the Invisible Institute and the community meetings that were held in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
City Bureau has also received a $25,000 planning grant from the McCormick Foundation to help it continue to grow and expand its offerings.
Holliday said City Bureau plans to do three sessions annually. The first launched in October and is set to finish up this month. The second runs from February to June, and there will be another, shorter session over the summer.
The next session will likely also focus on policing, but Holliday said that future sessions might tackle topics like education and housing. City Bureau also hopes to expand its selection pool to offer more students the chance to participate.
City Bureau’s young reporters have an understanding of the issues in their neighborhoods that many outsiders don’t possess, said Yana Kunichoff, one of City Bureau’s more experienced reporters. That background, she said, can change how their reporting is conducted.
“They have this really strong knowledge of the issues that we’re talking about because they’ve lived them,” Kunichoff said. “They are people who maybe themselves who have been affected, or they’re living in these communities that are devastated by the policies that we talk and write about. They come with really intimate knowledge, and you don’t have to [give them] an explanation of things like the dynamics of the police on the street.”
While some of the students will probably matriculate through the City Bureau program and pursue journalism professionally, others are interested in different career paths. Berry plans to join the Army.
For those students, and for the people City Bureau has interacted with through its community meetings, the outlet hopes to serve as a vehicle for change in the community.
“As an organization, we’re very directly and very bluntly trying to attack the racist systems and classist systems that keep disenfranchising individuals on the South and West Side,” Hart said.