Editorial: Erasing history no way to reform police department

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When a Chicago police officer kills a teenager by shooting him 16 times, the public has to right to know about every citizens complaint ever brought against the officer.

But in the case of Officer Jason Van Dyke, who has been charged with murder in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the people of Chicago remain partially in the dark about his record. Van Dyke racked up 20 citizens complaints over about 12 of his 14 years as a police officer, according to a public database, but any complaints made against him in the remaining two years and three months— January 2009 to March 2011 — are still secret.

Officer Van Dyke is the poster child for why all misconduct complaints against officers should be preserved permanently, despite efforts by police unions to have them destroyed after as little as five years. Equally important, the records should be made public.

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Bad cops seldom pop up out of nowhere. By the time they make headlines for doing something horrendous, they usually have been the subject already of a string of complaints. Only by seeing the complete record of complaints against an officer can the public — as well as scholars, journalists, lawyers and other investigators — fully assess whether the Chicago Police Department took proper action early and often.

Clearly, CPD failed the people of Chicago with respect to Officer Van Dyke, who was never once disciplined, though several of the complaints against him involved the serious — and now prescient — charge of excessive force.

It is telling proof that City Hall for years has been more interested in ignoring bad cops than in weeding them out that the rules to destroy misconduct records are written right into two union contracts. The Fraternal Order of Police contract provides for destroying such records after five years. In cases that go before the Police Board or involve criminal investigations or civil lawsuits, the records are to be destroyed after the cases are resolved. Both union contracts also stipulate that complaints can’t be used in disciplinary proceedings after five years or, in some cases, seven years.

A city that is serious about holding bad cops accountable does not agree to toss out misconduct records after just five years.

City Hall, to its credit, is resisting union pressure to destroy records dating back to 1967. City attorneys received a favorable temporary ruling Tuesday from the Cook County Local Records Commission that no records should be destroyed until certain legal issues are resolved. This would seem to trump an arbitrator’s ruling earlier this month that favored one of the two police unions, starting a clock ticking toward records being chucked in weeks or months.

The best safeguard against these efforts to erase history, however, would be a change in state law, the Illinois Local Records Act, to explicitly include police misconduct complaints among those records that must be retained indefinitely.

“When you destroy evidence, you destroy the possibility of accountability,” says Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has led a legal fight to win release of the records.

The purpose in preserving misconduct records is not to hound a good cop — and most cops are good cops — by dragging up unfounded citizens complaints from years or even decades in the past. It is to allow CPD and City Hall to better track individual and groups of wayward cops, and to detect possible troubling system-wide patterns. Are more officers being accused of excessive use of force today, for example, than 20 years ago? If so, why?

The very idea of destroying police misconduct records at a time when the U.S. Justice Department is sweeping into town to conduct a full “pattern and practice” investigation of the Chicago Police Department is a little bizarre. The department’s troubles — brutality, bias and a culture of unaccountability — date back decades. Why destroy evidence that tells the story?

That’s not how a police department convinces a city it is ready for reform.

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