from the hey,-this-is-the-1st-Amendment.-have-you-met? dept
The Chicago PD has a host of problems. Ones that have gone unaddressed for years and appear to remain unaddressed even after the federal government has been forced to step in. Misconduct goes unpunished, investigations into officers are left uncompleted, the PD buys surveillance tech with forfeiture funds to dodge its oversight, and it operated a CIA-style black site in the city where arrestees and their rights vanished with alarming regularity.
For years, the Chicago PD has also apparently investigated citizens who speak at public meetings. A 2019 investigation by the Chicago Tribune, aided by public records requests, uncovered this secret attack on the First Amendment.
Documents obtained by the Tribune under a public records request show the Police Department gathered the details on nearly 60 people in advance of their speaking at monthly meetings of the Chicago Police Board since at least January 2018. A police spokesman said the background checks go back further, to at least 2013.
The checks appear to be extensive, with police searching at least one internal department database to determine if speakers have arrest or prison records, warrants outstanding for their arrest, investigative alerts issued for them by the department and even if they’re registered sex offenders or missing persons. Police also searched comments that speakers had previously made on YouTube or on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, among other internet sites, the documents show.
Among those subjected to background checks were a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted decades ago by a Chicago police officer, a community activist who gained prominence after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a police officer and a 77-year-old man known for his frequent, flamboyant rants on a variety of topics at public meetings across the city.
It actually goes back further than 2013. Other public records indicate the Chicago PD has been doing this for more than 15 years, beginning in 2006.
The background searches only targeted certain speakers at certain public meetings: those wishing to express their opinion during comment sessions hosted by the PD’s oversight. Upon revelation of this practice, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson offered up two useless comments. First, he claimed the PD had never acted on this information. Then he promised to end it, but seemingly because it was a pointless exercise in police overreach.
“I don’t think we have a reason at this point to continue it,” said Johnson, who often attends Police Board meetings with members of his command staff. “It’s done.”
It’s really done now — at least as far as one background search database goes. The involuntary decision to end the practice of running searches on public speakers has been codified.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday signed into law a measure that makes it illegal for police to use at least one commonly searched law enforcement database to conduct criminal background checks on citizens who sign up to speak at public meetings statewide.
The new law, which goes into effect immediately, bars police agencies throughout Illinois from conducting background checks on citizens “for the sole reason” of that person speaking “at an open meeting of a public body, including police disciplinary boards.”
But the bill only forbids use of the LEADS (Law Enforcement Agencies Database System) database for these searches. It doesn’t prevent the Chicago PD (and other agencies) from using other criminal record/background check databases they have access to. There’s also a public safety exception that allows cops to run searches if they “reasonably” believe a speaker is a security threat or may engage in criminal conduct. That’s a pretty massive exemption and one that can be abused without officers fearing they may be punished by employers that have shown little interest in punishing them for their misconduct.
However, if LEADS is used and an officer can’t find a way to justify the search, there are actual consequences. A violation of the law can lead to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500. Considering how hesitant governments are about punishing their own, it seems unlikely we’ll see many officers punished for violating this new ban. If the cops want to dig up dirt on public speakers, they’ll find a way to do it. The better deterrent is something law enforcement agencies can’t control: speakers are allowed to sign up to speak at meetings 15 minutes ahead of its start, rather than 24 hours prior. That gives some power back to the people, making it far more difficult for dossiers to be compiled by police officers more interested in abusing their powers than respecting people’s rights.