The investigation by the Reader and Lucy Parsons Labs into the Chicago Police Department’s use of civil forfeiture money began with a single, tantalizing detail in a single FOIA’d document.

Lucy Parsons Labs is a Chicago-based nonprofit made up of technologists and activists dedicated to government transparency. In September 2014 we began looking into CPD’s use of IMSI catchers, powerful surveillance devices commonly called by their brand name, Stingray. These devices mimic cell-phone towers and force any cell phones in the area to give up personally identifying information—including phone numbers and unique device identifiers—all without an owner’s knowledge or consent.

In the purchasing memo for one such device, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, we saw a reference to an account name we hadn’t previously seen.

On October 13, 2014, Christopher Kennedy, from CPD’s Gang Investigations Division, wrote to Nicholas Roti, then chief of the department’s Bureau of Organized Crime:

The 2014 letter that revealed the existence of dedicated civil forfeiture accounts.
The 2014 letter that revealed the existence of dedicated civil forfeiture accounts.Credit: Chicago Police Department

“Because this equipment will be used for [REDACTED] investigations in to [sic] [word missing] [I] recommend that it be paid for with both 1505 and 1505ML funds in equal amounts,” he wrote.

After submitting multiple new FOIA requests, we learned that this 1505 fund was an account devoted to money police had seized from people during drug-related investigations—money the department ultimately kept via the practice of civil forfeiture. It struck us as potentially troubling that these controversial and invasive surveillance devices were being purchased as part of the broader war on drugs, which is now considered by many to have been a policy failure, given that the prices of many drugs have decreased and purity has increased since the war began. We were also concerned that these devices were being purchased without public conversation or scrutiny.

We wanted to know how much money CPD was spending on surveillance and what other equipment the department might be acquiring. We were also curious about the use of civil forfeiture in Chicago, the full extent of which had never before been revealed. So our full investigation began in earnest.

We sent FOIA requests to CPD for purchase orders for all checks from the 1505 account and the related 1505 ML, or money laundering account. Each check corresponds to a withdrawal from the 1505 or 1505 ML accounts; each purchase order describes what that money was used to buy. By obtaining both the purchase orders and copies of the checks, we’d know what CPD had purchased and how much money the department had spent on each item.

But under the Illinois law, if you request a large number of records, an agency may deny your request for being “unduly burdensome.” Given that our initial request could have encompassed thousands of documents, we decided to limit our search. Going on the assumption that CPD’s most significant purchases would be greater than $5,000, we requested only purchase orders corresponding to checks above that threshold.

Eventually we had a list of more than 600 checks we wanted to FOIA (around 550 for 2010 through 2015). But we ran into another roadblock. Again, under the Illinois law, a government agency may take longer to respond if a person sends multiple requests in a short period of time.

To get over this hurdle, Lucy Parsons Labs launched a collaboration with MuckRock, a FOIA and transparency website, asking ordinary users to send FOIA requests on our behalf.

Lucy Parsons Labs drafted a sample FOIA request for users to download and submit. We also managed the responses from CPD—MuckRock’s platform automatically followed up with CPD when the department was late responding to a request. Once checks came back from CPD, Lucy Parsons members collected the data in a centralized location and classified each purchase as being either part of routine police activities or as part of broader surveillance efforts. Eleven of our 13 community requesters used the MuckRock FOIA platform to submit and manage their requests.

But documents only tell part of the story, so the lab recruited investigative reporter Joel Handley to discover the human stories behind this complicated and often bureaucratic process. He did that by spending many hours watching civil forfeiture proceedings, interviewing people who had their money and assets taken, and obtaining the court and police records that would detail their individual stories.

After nearly a year of reporting, our collaboration produced a rich set of documents and data about a program that had previously been shrouded in mystery.

You can read our full investigation, dig into the details of CPD’s purchases, and see copies of all of our documents here.