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Chicago plan for police misconduct database fails to meet the moment

It’s transparency-lite. More a show than tell. The Chicago City Council should vote it down.

The Chicago flag on a police officer uniform.
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This week, the Chicago City Council is expected to vote to create a public database of allegations of police misconduct — one-stop-shopping for anybody in town to review all complaints and how they have been handled and resolved.

Except it wouldn’t really work that way.

The database proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and allies in the City Council would be nothing but transparency-lite. More show than tell.

It would include information only about misconduct complaints that have been sustained, not the vast majority of complaints — some 93% — that have not been sustained or were dismissed for other reasons. And it would include only summaries of cases, not supporting materials such as police reports.

We wrote about this issue less than four weeks ago, and we try not to revisit the same matters too frequently. At that time, our concern was that the mayor seemed pretty unexcited about the whole idea of creating a usefully complete cop complaint database, focusing on the cost — which we believe to have been exaggerated — instead of the need.

But now the council is scheduled to vote on a rather narrow plan — a database far less comprehensive than what the city’s inspector general and other reform advocates believe to be necessary — and we just gotta say it:

Aldermen, don’t go for it.

If this watered-down gesture toward more government transparency is approved, good luck ever seeing something of more substance come along. The moment will have been lost.

No getting around the grim history of misconduct

The mayor, like everybody else who appreciates how hard it is to be a cop in these times, is in a tough spot.

She no doubt understands the need for greater transparency with respect to complaints against the police. Not for nothing was she once president of the Chicago Police Board and chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force. But, as mayor, she must weigh that concern against the need to maintain and bolster the morale of the city’s police force.

Even the best Chicago cops — the vast majority of the police force — are feeling under siege. It’s getting tougher for the city to recruit new officers.

But there’s simply no getting around Chicago’s long and grim history of misconduct. Part of that can be blamed on individual “bad apples,” as often is said, but it’s also been a matter of the Chicago Police Department’s internal culture, as made clear in a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Any useful police complaint database must include information for the 93% of cases that are not sustained or for which no discipline is recommended. As Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute — which right now maintains the only database of this sort — wrote on Friday in the Chicago Tribune, it is those cases that might tell us what we need to know most.

“It is through analysis of the full universe of cases that we can diagnose where and how the system failed and how to fix it,” Kalven wrote, “as well as identify patterns of problematic behavior by particular officers and groups of officers.”

There is room for compromise. We don’t think, for example, that such a database needs to include information related to an officer’s personal life, such as domestic abuse or addiction. The database largely should concern itself with on-duty behavior.

But as we wrote before: Read the room, Mayor Lightfoot and aldermen.

The current proposal simply fails to meet the moment. Given the state of policing in Chicago and across the country, our city should welcome the creation of a police misconduct database — an aggressively complete database — that anybody can access from a computer with ease.

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