Mayor and aldermen: Read the room and get behind a database for police misconduct

The public has a right to easy and quick access to the information, especially given where we are right now locally and nationally with regard to policing.

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Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson speaks at a news conference in April 2019 at City Hall.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson wants a public database of police misconduct.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Given the state of policing these days, particularly in Chicago, you’d think the mayor and aldermen would champion an effort to allow the public easier access to information about possible bad apples among the 13,000 sworn officers we pay $1.7 billion a year to protect us.

Instead, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a number of aldermen are opposing a bid by city Inspector General Joe Ferguson — and a proposed ordinance by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) — to create an online database that would let the public search Chicago Police Department misconduct files dating back to 1994.

It’s not as if these files are secret. But Ferguson has proposed making the documents accessible from any computer, which is much faster and more efficient than having to file a Freedom of Information Act. You could call up records instantly from your home.

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Lightfoot, who should be leading on this issue given that she ran for mayor on a promise of increasing city government transparency, is crying poor mouth over Ferguson’s idea. She claims, citing figures gathered from who-knows-where, that it would take “tens of millions of dollars” to implement.

“Going back 30 years to paper files and the expense of digitizing them — I’m not sure what the utility of that would be,” Lightfoot said.

Well, how’s this for starters: The public has a right to easy and quick access to the information, especially given where we are right now locally and nationally with respect to the police.

Aldermen need to be “more comfortable”

Under the proposed ordinance, a misconduct file published to the database would include the names of accused officers, details about the complaint, the name of the agency that investigated the charge, the disposition of the case and any other information the inspector general’s office chose to release.

The nonprofit Invisible Institute has a compiled a similar database that is used by community members, journalists, civil rights attorneys and others.

Ferguson’s proposed database and the ordinance proposed by Waguespack are responses to a judge’s findings that city officials and the police routinely “willfully and intentionally failed to comply” with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

But aldermen postponed taking a vote on the measure at last week’s meeting of the Finance and Public Safety committees, with more than a few Council members saying they need to know more about the proposal. Lightfoot made her own objections clear in comments she made earlier that day.

“I personally think that having a vote today maybe isn’t the best way to go until more people are comfortable,” Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said during the meeting.

Waguespack rightly pushed back.

“This thing has been on the table for seven months,” he said. “It’s been on the table for a decade. All this information is already out there, available. There’s nothing new about the information.”

Transparency “the only thing”

We’re not convinced the cost of creating the database would be excessive. Ferguson says it would cost $709,501, which is far less than the “tens of millions” Lightfoot talked about, and be managed by existing staff in his office.

We also believe the city will pay a much higher price, especially in terms of public trust, if it fails to move forward on this ordinance.

“We are out of runway with respect to the public’s patience and belief that we care to reform,” Ferguson told aldermen at the committee meeting. “Transparency is about the only thing we have available to us.”

If the mayor and aldermen are serious about police reform in this town, they’ll quit stalling and create this database now.

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