By Austin Berg
As the U.S. Department of Justice gears up for a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department, the city’s police unions are fighting in court to keep hidden reams of complaint records spanning decades.
Last year, a request made under the Freedom of Information Act for records of complaints against Chicago police officers dating back to 1967 was challenged unsuccessfully by the city. The Illinois Appellate Court ruled the city must honor the request, made by independent local journalist Jamie Kalven.
In the wake of that ruling, Kalven was joined by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times in his fight for the data, and city officials agreed to release it.
But then the unions stepped in.
In October 2014, the union representing rank-and-file Chicago police officers sued the city to prevent the release of records more than four years old.
The suit by the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, argued that officers would face “public humiliation and loss of prestige in their employment” were those older records made public. The Chicago Police Benevolent and Protective Association, or PBPA, which represents higher-ranking officers, filed a separate, similar lawsuit.
Illinois Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn granted the unions an injunction preventing the release of most of the files. But preliminary findings show the power and importance of this kind of information.
Records show lack of accountability
The same month the FOP filed its suit, Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The records the city has been allowed to release thus far paint a troubling picture of that incident and of how persistent complaints against Chicago police officers are handled in general.
Van Dyke, who has been charged with McDonald’s murder, was the subject of at least 20 complaints over his 14-year career – including several brutality complaints, one of which resulted in a civil lawsuit costing the city $530,000 in damages and legal fees – according to data released by the city going back to 2011, along with data obtained from two civil lawsuits against the city. These records can be viewed through the Citizens Police Data Project, or CPDP.
None of the complaints against Van Dyke resulted in disciplinary action. In fact, of the more than 28,000 complaints filed against Chicago Police Department officers from 2011 to 2015, less than 2 percent resulted in discipline, typically in the form of a reprimand or a suspension of less than one week.
Most officers have only a small number of complaints. Data show officers with more than 10 complaints make up about 10 percent of Chicago’s police force. That said, those 10 percent of officers have accrued 30 percent of all complaints, averaging nearly four times the number of complaints per officer as the rest of the force, according to analysis of the CPDP data published byCBS Chicago.
Destruction of records could harm torture victims
University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman says patterns such as these are crucial to acknowledge in efforts to increase police accountability and efficacy, and that destruction of these records would mean the destruction of all evidence of abuse, including police torture. He has been at the forefront of the legal fight to win release of the records.
Futterman also serves on the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, a state agency that investigates whether Illinoisans who allege they were coerced into confessions merit new hearings. He says destroying the records in question would make it difficult or impossible to get new hearings for those individuals.
But if the police unions are successful in their lawsuits against the city, Chicago officials may have to destroy all records and evidence related to police complaints over four years old.
An arbitrator has already ruled in the PBPA case that the city’s contract allows the department to erase old records. Futterman expects the same ruling in the FOP case.
But Flynn ruled in an emergency order on Dec. 3 that Chicago authorities must notify journalists and activists before destroying any records.
Chicago Police must maintain records – and keep them public
The basis for the police unions’ lawsuit preventing the release of records is the contracts between the unions and the city, which require nearly all records of complaints against officers to be destroyed after five years. But the city has preserved these records, and this harmful policy should be revoked.
The decades of prison time served by Chicagoans who were wrongfully convicted based on forced confessions and other tainted evidence obtained through police abuse by those such as Burge, thehundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money spent settling Chicago police brutality lawsuits, and the need to re-establish the public’s trust and respect for city police in a time of intense and healthy scrutiny demand as much.