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How ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Worked Together to Find Thousands of Duplicate Tickets in Chicago

We heard from you about how ticket debt, especially from $200 city sticker citations, has affected you. And we would like your help as we continue our reporting.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

Hi. Two of us are writing this week: Melissa Sanchez from ProPublica Illinois and Elliott Ramos from WBEZ. Why two of us? Well, a few months ago, we realized we were both digging into data on Chicago parking and traffic camera tickets. And lucky for us, we both work for news organizations that believe in collaboration, so it was easy to team up instead of racing to beat each other.

Last week, we published our first story together on how Chicago has issued thousands of duplicate tickets to drivers and why impoverished black communities are getting the worst of it.

We plan to do more. But first, we want to tell you about how we teamed up, what we’ve learned and where we want to report next. Maybe you can help us find the next story.

— Melissa and Elliott

Why we are so interested in the tickets:

ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ digital editor Elliott Ramos. (Elliott Ramos/WBEZ)

Elliott: In Chicago, people complain that ticketing, fines and fees make it harder and harder to afford to live here. The silver lining, if there is one, is that all those tickets come with a data trove that says who owes what and where they live and where they were ticketed. You can start to compare what’s happening in different neighborhoods, see how ticketing has changed over time and determine whether complaints about disparities are true.

Melissa: Ticket debt is devastating thousands of Chicago families — generations of families, really — right under our noses. I’ve talked to people who are in bankruptcy, and whose parents, siblings, children and grandchildren have also filed for bankruptcy — all because of debt from tickets. The city’s long had this narrative about how “scofflaws” just need to pay up. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

How we started working together:

Elliott: I have been working on ticket and towing stories for almost a year now. When I read Melissa and Sandhya’s first story, I was blown away. It was refreshing to see someone else not only look at the data the same way, but they blew the doors open and went right into how it was affecting people and sending thousands of people into debt — even into bankruptcy. I knew the data they were using and had some data they hadn’t used, and offered it up to see if there was any way it could advance their work.

Melissa: I didn’t know Elliott but I’d read (and heard) his previous reporting and seen his name in city request logs for similar sets of data. I was nervous he was going to scoop us on the bankruptcy story. Instead, when that story came out, Elliott reached out with a sweet email offering to share four data sets “which might be helpful for you guys if you hadn’t already FOIA’d [reporter shorthand for “filed a records request under the Freedom of Information Act”] or obtained it.” Match made in nerd heaven.

What collaboration looked like:

Melissa: We did almost everything using Google Docs — from writing the story and watching editors jump in with revisions, to compiling FOIA requests and preparing questions for the city.

Both journalists were digging into data on Chicago parking and traffic camera tickets — so they decided to collaborate. (Elliott Ramos/WBEZ)

Our offices aren’t super close so we didn’t see each other a lot in person. But sometimes we met for lunch or coffee to check in, like this day at a tea shop, which Elliott documented with a nerdy photo of our spreadsheets and paperwork.

Elliott: I like that we complement each others’ skills. I tend to use Pandas in Python and Melissa uses SQL for analysis. I was mapping data while she was knocking on doors. I joked that I’m like the man in the van in those movies where the tech geek is on radio and the laptop hacking doors for the secret agent.

The reaction from readers:

Melissa: Super engaged! Especially after we got to talk about our findings on Cliff Kelley’s afternoon show on WVON. One comment that really stood out came from a man from Hyde Park who works in IT. He couldn’t believe the city didn’t systematically flag and toss out duplicate tickets. “That’s a very simple technology application,” he told us. “You don’t need Mark Zuckerberg.”

Elliott: After WVON, I had folks calling my desk phone. I think there’s genuine frustration with tickets that goes beyond the money. There’s a perception of harassment or that the city is out to get them. With data, we can actually figure out if there’s some truth to that feeling. Whether or not it’s exaggerated, or whether or not some areas are genuinely getting hit harder with tickets.

What drivers are supposed to do if they feel they’ve been wrongly ticketed:

Melissa: There’s an appeals process, which can be done online, by mail or through in-person hearings. The city also said drivers can bypass the hearings process and call the Finance Department’s customer service line, at 312-744-7275, if they believe they’ve been issued a ticket in error.

If you go the hearings route, feel free to reach out and let us know how it went. We might even ask to tag along.

What we want to know more about:

Elliott: I’m interested in what happens when tickets escalate to a boot or an impound. Often the ticket debt compounds, but when a vehicle is impounded, it can set off a whole new set of circumstances with different outcomes for different people.

Melissa: We plan to look a bit deeper into the city sticker and related tickets, in addition to a few other kinds of citations. I’m also interested in talking with people who’ve lost city jobs because of ticket debt, and learning more about the city’s administrative hearings process and the companies it contracts to do debt collection.

If you have any other ideas or tips, email us at [email protected] and [email protected]. We like to work together.

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