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City watchdog condemns revised database of police disciplinary cases

The original proposal has undergone “substantial changes” that would “profoundly limit its transparency value,” argued Joe Ferguson, the city’s inspector general.

A man is taken into custody on June 1, 2020 as Chicago police officers clash with hundreds of protesters outside a store that had been looted near East 71st Street and South Chappel Avenue.
A man is taken into custody in June of last year as Chicago police officers clash edwith hundreds of protesters outside a store that had been looted near East 71st Street and South Chappel Avenue.
Sun-Times file

Chicago will create a public database of closed police disciplinary investigations, but only dating back to 2000, under a watered-down mayoral compromise that Inspector General Joe Ferguson argued does not go nearly far enough to repair shattered public trust.

Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the database of sustained and dismissed complaints against Chicago police officers would cost “tens of millions of dollars” to create and wasn’t worth that exorbitant cost.

Ferguson, who co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability with Lightfoot, strongly disagreed.

The inspector general pegged the cost of creating the database at $709,501 and said Chicago was “out of runway with respect to the public’s patience.”

Now, Lightfoot has agreed to create a database of closed police disciplinary investigations, but control the potential costs by limiting the content of that easily-searchable database to only certain kinds of cases, and only those from 2000 onward.

The original database ordinance championed by two powerful mayoral allies — Public Safety Committee Chairman Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) — was open-ended.

Their committees will meet Monday to approve the revised ordinance with the 21-year limit.

The inspector general’s office will be charged with creating and publishing on its website a “searchable and downloadable digital repository of summary responds which include finalized disciplinary dispositions” against Chicago police officers.

Each summary report will list:

• Names of each accused officer.

• Investigating agency.

• Final disciplinary decision or other final disposition.

• Complainant register number.

• Type of complainant or other notification type and category.

The regularly-updated database will not include “summary reports of investigations of alleged incidents of domestic abuse, child abuse, or substance abuse,” the mayor’s office said.

Ferguson argued the “substantial changes” made to the original ordinance would “profoundly limit its transparency value.”

For example, the database would include only police disciplinary cases in which “allegations of misconduct have been sustained, discipline has been recommended, and discipline has been either adjudicated or accepted,” the inspector general said.

It would not include “any cases in which accused police officers were exonerated, any cases which were mediated, any cases which were closed — properly or otherwise — without reaching a finding, or any officer-involved shootings for which no one was subject to administrative discipline.”

In addition, the revised database would be confined to summary reports, not supporting documents. And it would be limited to cases investigated by the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and their “successor agencies.” Agencies that preceded the 2017 creation of COPA — including the Office of Professional Standards once led by Lightfoot and the Independent Police Review Authority — would not be included.

“In sum, the new version is a significantly smaller step in scope and scale, than the one presented to City Council in April,” Ferguson was quoted as saying in an emailed statement.

“The road to reform is a very long one. We need to be leaping by miles, not leaning in inches.”

Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg said Chicago needs to “meet contemporary standards of transparency as defined by the courts and expected by society, not fall back to the secrecy objectives of a dark past whose legacy echoes today to the detriment and trust and legitimacy in the Chicago Police Department” and city government.”

Arguing that Chicago “owes a transparency debt,” Witzburg was quoted as saying, “Where we have an opportunity to make a transformational down payment, we should not be offering up incremental pocket change.”

While Ferguson and Witzburg argued the database does not go far enough, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara accused the city of going too far — at the expense of police officers under siege.

“It’s just gonna be more of an impetus for officers to say, ‘Screw this job. Screw this city. I’m gettin’ out of here.’ We’ve got more and more officers who are leaving for lateral transfers to other departments,” Catanzara said.

“The very officers they hope to be the future of this department are the ones, more than ever, who are looking to go somewhere else with their talent and their certification and go be the police in surrounding counties, suburbs, other parts of the state or even country. And it’s only gonna get worse. I am only going to encourage my officers to do just that in this climate of, they don’t care about the police. They want to make this job as miserable as possible.”