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Police abuse allegations finally go public

We stand at a watershed in the long history of efforts to address patterns of police abuse in Chicago. On March 10, the state appellate court held in Kalven v. Chicago that documents bearing on allegations of police misconduct are public information. On July 11, the Emanuel administration announced that it will not appeal Kalven and that it has adopted a set of procedures for implementing the decision.

As the plaintiff and attorneys in Kalven, we engaged in extended negotiations with Corporation Counsel Steve Patton and his staff in order to settle the case. The Emanuel administration is to be commended. Not only does its new transparency policy conform to Kalven, in some respects it goes beyond what the decision requires.

This is real reform. It is important to understand why.

The documents at issue are: (1) the investigative files generated when a citizen files a complaint charging police misconduct, and (2) lists of officers who accumulated repeated complaints of abuse.

Two agencies handle police misconduct complaints for the city: the Independent Police Review Authority investigates allegations of excessive force, and Internal Affairs is responsible for allegations of corruption and a range of other offenses.

In case after case, we and others have challenged the adequacy of IPRA and Internal Affairs investigations. We have argued that the police department’s investigative system is broken and that this confers impunity on abusive officers.

Chicago Police Department data reveal that a small proportion of officers — officers who typically work together in groups — are responsible for nearly half of all abuse complaints. But the department has failed to investigate these patterns, leading abusive officers to believe they are above the law.

Beyond the harms to individual victims, this engenders pervasive distrust that greatly reduces the effectiveness of the police. A handful of abusive officers, if not held accountable, can alienate an entire neighborhood. As a result, the vast majority of officers who are trying to do their jobs do not receive the cooperation they need to prevent and solve crimes.

Until now, the city has fiercely resisted any and all efforts via the Freedom of Information Act and civil discovery to make public the identities of officers with repeated complaints and the contents of police misconduct files. From our perspective, it has often seemed to allocate more resources to maintaining official secrecy than to addressing the underlying problems.

The Emanuel administration’s new policy breaks with the past. From now on, the city will honor FOIA requests for police misconduct files, subject only to the redaction of private information such as the names of complainants and the accused officer’s address and Social Security number. If it believes a request is unduly burdensome, it will provide summary digests, detailed narratives of the investigation. Requesters will then have the option of asking the city for a subset of the requested files or specific documents they have identified within the files.

This policy will allow the public and the press to assess the quality of investigations and to identify groups of officers with a pattern of complaints. It will create incentives for investigators, knowing their work is subject to public scrutiny, to conduct rigorous investigations. And it will ultimately, we believe, move the department to address patterns of police abuse.

A significant reform in itself, the new policy facilitates an ongoing process of reform. It allows us to see what is not working and to engage in public discussion, unimpeded by official secrecy, about how best to fix it.

The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to ensure that citizens and the press have the information they need to perform their roles in our democratic society. The Kalven decision emphatically affirms that principle with respect to information about police misconduct. And the Emanuel administration has taken appropriate steps to implement it. This puts a powerful tool in our hands. It is up to us as citizens to make effective use of it.

Craig Futterman is director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School. Jamie Kalven is a journalist who has written extensively about police abuse and impunity. Flint Taylor, a founding partner of the People’s Law Office, has represented a number of men tortured by Chicago Police under Commander Jon Burge. Jon Loevy is the founder of Loevy & Loevy, a civil rights firm specializing in police misconduct cases.



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