By Deanna Trejo
Years of investigations by CBS2 Chicago into botched police raids, such as the ones that propelled Anjanette Young and Peter Mendez into the national spotlight and led to sweeping changes in procedures, all began with a single press release.
That release was about a settlement between the Chicago Police Department and yet another victim of a wrongful raid, which eventually laid out a pattern of abuse. CBS2’s Samah Assad, Dave Savini and Michele Youngerman on Saturday afternoon walked a FOIAFest 2021 audience through their experiences. Here are some key takeaways:
Build trust. The Mendez family initially didn’t want to talk to the media about the circumstances of a raid on their home. The CBS2 team reached out to the family’s attorney, who represented other clients with similar stories. As families came forward, being transparent and genuine with people helped them open up to Savini, Youngerman said.
They eventually told of police bursting into their home in November 2017 with weapons drawn, pointing guns at everyone, including Peter, then 9. It was the wrong home, and their story led the team to look at similar cases, culminating in the high-profile botched raid of Young’s apartment in February 2019.
Find data. There is no manual. “We had to become experts on the paper trail,” Assad said, because CPD is not required to give any guidance. File FOIAs for everything connected to the investigation, including body camera footage, search warrants, equipment logs and complaints for search warrants. “[T]he complaint for search warrants is gold” and has much more information than the search warrant, Assad said. Keep track of all FOIAs with updates and calendar reminders, and look for other sources of information, such as state’s attorneys and neighbors who witnessed wrongful raids.
Make sense of the data. A popular refrain at FOIAFest 2021 has been that data is almost always incomplete and messy. “No FOIA is going to show directly what’s going on. You gotta build off of that,” Assad said. The CBS team built its own database to look for patterns, eventually establishing racial disparities among victims. Bulletproof the data before reporting on it. Report on denials of data requests. And report on what the data doesn’t say because that can be just as important as what the data does say.
People behind the data. Remember the most important W – the Why.
“We are talking about FOIAs, but it’s really at the bottom of it the traumas,” Savini said. “We think about the big picture and that analysis of the data. But it’s that breaking down of that door between you and the violence of the street. Do the police fix your door? No.”
Validating people’s experiences is another aspect. “When it comes to somebody raiding your home, without those body cameras, you don’t have proof of what happened to you,” Youngerman said.
Youngerman, Assad and Savini believe their reporting has made Chicago police more accountable. Reforms have followed, including a law passed in 2019 named after Peter Mendez requiring police to be trained in how to deal with children in a way that minimizes trauma.