Chicago Court Rules Police Misconduct Records Must Be Made Publicly Available
from the it's-called-oversight,-and-if-the-cops-won't-do-it,-the-public-will dept
The insularity of law enforcement -- the secrecy and opacity that allows misbehaving officers to escape being held responsible for their actions -- has been partially stripped away in Chicago. The city's appellate court has delivered a decision that puts police misconduct records into the hands of the public.
Citizen complaints about Chicago police misconduct and the related investigative files are public records and must be turned over by the city, an Illinois appeals court ruled this week.The fact that investigative files are now public records is a big win for public oversight. Internal investigation documents have often been withheld by law enforcement agencies, many of whom seem completely uninterested in opening up their departments to additional scrutiny. Additionally, the city's appellate court has severely limited the use of existing exemptions to deny requests for police misconduct files.
A three-judge panel of the state Appellate Court in Chicago rejected the city's claim that such files are exempt from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
City lawyers argued such records were covered by an exemption in the state's Freedom of Information law for "preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated."There's still a bit of a loophole left for the Chicago PD to exploit, however.
The judges wrote that exemption only applies to "opinions that public officials form while creating government policy. It does not protect factual material or final agency decisions."
If a complaint results in disciplinary charges against an officer, records from that process may still be kept secret, the appellate court noted.From what information is out there, it's unclear whether this exception applies to only documents directly related to the disciplinary process or whether it exempts everything related to the case from public records. In either case (though certainly more damaging to oversight in the latter), this exemption gives back a little opacity to misbehaving cops.
On the plus side, this new ruling allows for easier tracking of Chicago police misconduct.
The appeals court also found that "RL" files are open to the public. Those files identify police officers who have accumulated the most misconduct complaints. At issue were two RL files that named officers with the most complaints between 2001-2006 and 2002-2008.This transparency is something the city of Chicago sorely needs.
A study by University of Chicago professor Craig Futterman found that just 19 of 10,149 complaints accusing CPD officers of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse, sexual abuse, and false arrests led to a police suspension of a week or more. In more than 85 percent of internal investigations of complaints, the accused officer was never even interviewed.If the Chicago PD decides to return to business as usual in terms of responding to misconduct complaints, it will no longer be able to hide its inactivity behind expansive FOI exceptions. And if officers realize they're creating easily accessible public records every time someone files a complaint, they're bound to exercise a bit more discretion while on-duty.