Year in review: Some of Injustice Watch’s best work of 2021

Here at Injustice Watch, 2021 was a year of growth and transition. In our first year under Editor-in-Chief Adeshina Emmanuel, we’ve doubled down on our commitment to centering the voices and the experiences of people who have been most impacted by the issues on which we report. We expanded our coverage to new beats, including housing and the suburbs, with the addition of journalists Grace Asiegbu and Rita Oceguera, who joined us through Report for America. Senior reporter Maya Dukmasova joined the team to build on our reputation as a leading source of news about Cook County judges and the courts.

We wanted to highlight some of our favorite stories from 2021 — the work that we think made Injustice Watch stand out, that exposed systems of injustice and inequity, and that provided crucial information about issues that matter to you, our readers. We couldn’t have done this work without you. Thank you for your support!

Judicial oversight

Illustration of Judge Gregory Vazquez

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

Since our founding, judicial conduct — and misconduct — has been one of our key coverage areas. This month, Maya looked at one judge’s use of a little-known electronic alcohol monitor called SCRAM. While the device has been in use in Illinois since 2006, most people charged with DUIs in Cook County are unlikely to end up on it — unless their case lands in front of Associate Judge Gregory P. Vazquez in suburban Maywood. Maya’s investigation found that Vazquez had ordered nearly six times as many defendants to wear the ankle bracelet as the judge with the next highest number of SCRAM orders. Judges have wide discretion — and no oversight — about when to use the monitors, and people who have been ordered to wear them shoulder the cost.

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We also wrote about the newest class of associate judges, who are selected by other judges — not the public. We covered the slating of candidates by the Cook County Democratic Party ahead of next June’s primary elections. And we wrote about advocates confronting Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans over issues in the court’s domestic violence division.

Immigrant communities

Protesters in Little Village

Mateo Zapata

Hundreds of people gathered in Little Village on Sunday, April 18, 2021, to protest the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

In April, Chicago’s Latinx community was rocked by the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village, a predominantly Mexican community on Chicago’s West Side. Following the release of body camera footage that appeared to show the seventh grader dropping a gun and lifting his empty hands, reporter Carlos Ballesteros spoke with more than 30 residents about how they felt about the fatal encounter. What emerged was a reflection on police, gangs, and race nearly a year after the murder of George Floyd.

That story was part of our coverage of immigrant communities in and around Chicago. This past year, that included a reporting partnership with Borderless Magazine on the collateral consequences for noncitizens who are convicted of crimes and a series of stories about the passage of — and opposition to — a state law that will ban immigration detention in Illinois. (We also wrote about an Indiana county that is looking to cash in on the end of immigration detention in Illinois.) We’re continuing this work into next year with our first collaboration with the Chicago Tribune, which will explore the aging population of undocumented immigrants in Illinois.

Housing and the Covid-19 pandemic

Grace Asiegbu

Carolyn Hardwick (center), Donna Mayfield (center-right) and other tenants of 4351 S. King Drive hosted a press conference Oct. 21 to demand financial assistance after PIP Realty, which manages the building, gave them no-fault termination notices over the summer. An ordinance pending in the Chicago City Council would protect renters from no-fault evictions and require landlords to provide relocation assistance.

As the state and federal governments lifted their pandemic-related eviction moratoria this year, advocates anticipated a crush of evictions affecting people across Chicago. Grace has been following this story and providing crucial information about access to federal rental assistance programs. Grace also reported on an ordinance that has stalled in the Chicago City Council that would provide better protections for renters from no-fault evictions. As we grow our new beat on housing — which includes issues such as gentrification, houselessness, neighborhood change, and prison conditions — we’d love to hear from you about housing issues that you’ve experienced.

The Circuit

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for The Circuit

This was the second year of The Circuit, our unprecedented collaboration with the Better Government Association and DataMade looking at two decades of Cook County Circuit Court data. After months of data cleaning, we were able to analyze the race, ethnicity, and gender of defendants in more than 3 million criminal cases in Cook County. What we found was that the percentage of Black defendants increased as the overall number of cases dropped. We spoke with experts in criminology, sociology, and community organizing, who pointed to shifting priorities of police and prosecutors and the historic disinvestment in Chicago’s Black communities as some of the reasons for the trend.

We also used data from The Circuit to report on the harm caused by Illinois’ criminal HIV transmission law, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker ended this year, in collaboration with the Chicago Reader. We have a lot more reporting to do with this invaluable dataset, and we’re working with our partners to train more journalists in Chicago with the data skills to work with this enormous and complex database.

Policing in the suburbs

Illustration of a worried citizen with Aurora Police Officer David Brian behind him standing next to a police cruiser

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

This month, we published an investigation into an Aurora police officer with a long history of misconduct complaints, including at least two sustained complaints of sexual harassment. Earlier this year, Rita began looking into policing in Aurora — her hometown and Illinois’ second-largest city — and one name kept coming up: David Brian. But what we found out about Brian through public records surprised even the activists who had been long calling for his termination.

Rita has helped us expand our coverage into the suburbs, which are quickly becoming the “hub of civil rights conflict in America,” as one expert put it. This year, she also reported on the controversy over the Mount Prospect Police Department’s use of the “thin blue line” symbol, which has been embraced by white supremacists, on their officer’s uniforms. She’ll continue to focus on issues in Chicago’s diverse suburbs into next year.

And more

A person stands in front of a barbed-wire fence outside the Cook County Jail. They are holding a sign, which obscures their face, which reads

risingthermals, via Flickr

A protestor stands outside the Cook County Jail, June 13, 2020.

We reported on the transition in leadership at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office from Amy Campanelli to Sharone Mitchell Jr., a former public defender and longtime reform advocate who was part of a coalition that successfully pushed for the end of money bond in Illinois. We wrote about how 71-year-old James Allen barely made it into the courtroom before his decades-old murder conviction was overturned. We followed up on the SAFE-T Act, the landmark criminal justice reform bill that the Illinois legislature passed this year, and the changes to the bill that its critics are pushing for. We explored the Chicago police union’s history of incendiary rhetoric and opposition to racial justice movements. We investigated the use of “gang contracts” in Cicero and Berwyn schools. We covered the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and jails and reported on a project that helped women in prison connect with their loved ones during the pandemic through photographs. And much more.

Thank you for reading and being part of Injustice Watch’s community. We have a lot more great work in store for 2022. If you want to help sustain our work into the future, you can make a tax-deductible donation today. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next year!