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City told to destroy police disciplinary records dating back to ‘60s

File photo. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A labor arbitrator has said the city must destroy Chicago police disciplinary records dating back decades, the latest blow to activists’ attempts to get access to misconduct files from as far back as the late 1960s.

A ruling issued Tuesday in a labor grievance case between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police states the city’s contract with its largest police union requires it to destroy most disciplinary records four years after complaints are filed.

Arbitrator George Roumell Jr. ordered the city to begin negotiations with the FOP on which records were due for destruction — files in pending lawsuits would be exempted — and said he would issue a final order in mid-April.

Monday, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, said he planned to introduce legislation that would require police departments across the state to keep all disciplinary files permanently, a move he said would pre-empt any union contract.

Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago Law School professor who has joined litigation seeking to make the decades of disciplinary records public, said Friday he was concerned that the ruling leaves just a few months before a court-ordered “bonfire” of data that could be used as the Chicago Police Department makes reforms in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting and a looming federal investigation of the department.

“I thought the order couldn’t be more clear: the end game is within the next couple months the city is to see that all those records are destroyed,” Futterman said.

City officials have testified they maintain more than 3,600 boxes of investigative files and several computer databases, holding police disciplinary records dating back to 1967.

Lawyers for the unions have said that the city has held onto records even when officers were cleared of misconduct allegations, and that entries in the files often are inaccurate. City attorneys have argued that union lawyers have been aware since the 1990s that records have been kept in defiance of the contract, and that the city needs to keep the files intact as a hedge against lawsuits against officers.

The union filed a grievance over the files in 2012, following a changeover in FOP leadership and around the time activists filed a public records request seeking access to the files.

“The City of Chicago opposes the destruction of police disciplinary records,” Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in an email. “Our longstanding position is that these records have an administrative and legal purpose that warrants preservation, and we will continue our legal efforts to maintain and preserve these records.”

A spokesman for the FOP declined comment Friday afternoon.

The ruling in favor of the FOP comes after an arbitrator in December ruled in favor of smaller unions representing police sergeants, lieutenants and captains, finding their contracts mandated the city “purge” similar records from city computer databases. The city still has several days to file an appeal in that case, and has several weeks to file an appeal of the ruling in the FOP case.

A Cook County judge in a separate case involving public records requests by the Sun-Times and community activists for the disciplinary files has said the city must notify the court two weeks before moving to destroy any records.