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A big step forward for police reform in Chicago and Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled police unions can’t force misconduct records to be destroyed. It’s a game changer.

The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield.
Sun-Times file photo

The idea that public records — including police misconduct records — belong to the public won a monumental round Thursday. Now it is time to cement that concept into state law.

On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that misconduct records of Chicago police must remain available to the public after five years, though the contract with the union representing most police officers requires the records to be destroyed at that point.

The ruling is critically important for anyone trying to crack down on police misconduct. It also boosts the principle of government accountability.

Six years ago, a state appellate court ruled that all complaints about Chicago police misconduct and the underlying investigative files are records that must be available to the public through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Before 1991, many police misconduct records older than five years were destroyed, but the destruction of such records had been put on hold since then by a series of judicial orders.

The Fraternal Order of Police didn’t like that and sued. They argued that many complaints against officers are unfounded and that the collective bargaining agreement requires those records to be destroyed after five years from the date of the incidents or the date when violations were discovered, whichever is longer.

Fortunately, the Illinois Supreme Court has finally put that argument to rest.

“This is a truly momentous decision,” University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman, who wrote a brief in the case, told us on Thursday. “The very information that is needed to identify officers’ patterns and practices would have gone up in smoke forever.”

Thursday’s ruling is important for a number of specific reasons:

  • Any effort to weed out clearly rogue police officers requires that records be available to determine their behavior over many years, not just the past five years.
  • The complaints about police misconduct are essential if the city is to create an early intervention system for troubled officers, as called for in the police reform consent decree under which the city now operates.
  • Many exonerations of wrongfully convicted men tortured by former Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his crew in the 1970s and 1980s never would have happened had no records been available. The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission has about 530 open cases in which men claim they were tortured by police decades ago. Without records of past misconduct complaints, TIRC Executive Director Rob Olmstead said, the commission “absolutely would” have difficulty sorting those cases out. Disturbingly, some men languishing in prison might be having an unfairly hard time making their case that they were tortured. Without knowing what was in records that already have been destroyed, we don’t know.
  • Imagine, as well, a future case of alleged misconduct by a Chicago police officer who does not have an obviously checkered history. It certainly would be helpful to know whether that officer had engaged in any similar incidents in the past or had an otherwise stellar record stretching back years. Without access to old records, no one would know. This ruling benefits accused police officers with lengthy clean records because they can point to a long career of professional behavior, not just the past five years.

Although the Supreme Court ruling has made it clear union contracts cannot override government policy, the ruling does not prevent various local officials or records commissions around the state from making their own decisions about which records to maintain. That’s why this decision needs to be codified into state law.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot believes records of alleged police misconduct should be protected, but what if a future Chicago mayor or records commission is less of a public guardian?

In the past in Springfield, it has always been difficult for a majority of legislators to summon up the will to enact any legislation opposed by police unions. But we are living in a different moment. Americans of all backgrounds are marching across the country in support of police reform.

The Legislature is not in session, but working groups of legislators should be drawing up police and criminal justice reform bills now. Among those reforms should be a law explicitly requiring the preservation of police misconduct complaints across the state.

Police reform in Illinois took a big step forward on Thursday. Let’s keep up the momentum.

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