City won’t fight to keep citizen complaints against cops secret

SHARE City won’t fight to keep citizen complaints against cops secret

In a major policy turnabout, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will make citizen complaints against Chicago Police officers available for public scrutiny, according to city officials.

In March, a state appeals court ruled the city couldn’t keep the records secret, and the city vowed to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

But on Friday, city officials said they won’t appeal after all.

“We did think we had a strong case and a viable argument, but we decided this comes in line with our efforts to build relationships between the public and police department and improve transparency,” city spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said.

The city’s decision to release complaints against cops doesn’t mean the public will get to see everything.

Standard exemptions under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act will remain in place, Breymaier said.

“The records will be redacted to make sure the information we give out does not compromise an investigation or witness confidentiality,” she said, adding that the city will hand over files only after the investigation is completed and the case is closed.

The city will black out names, Social Security numbers and other identifying information about witnesses and people filing complaints. The city could refuse to release information that could jeopardize an ongoing law-enforcement investigation. And the city could redact information about specialized investigative techniques not generally known to the public.

Finally, the city could reject Freedom of Information requests for “CR” files deemed “overly burdensome.”

“Asking for every CR for a particular year would be burdensome,” a city official said on background.

“But there will not be an automatic, across-the-board refusal to make public police disciplinary files.”

The city was responding to two lawsuits seeking access to CR files, which consist of misconduct complaints against officers and documents created during the investigations.

In March, a state appeals court ruled on a Freedom of Information request made by independent journalist and activist Jamie Kalven. The appeals court found that CR files and so-called Repeater List, or “RL,” files are both open to the public.

RL files identify police officers who have accumulated the most misconduct complaints. At issue were two RL files that named officers with the most complaints between 2001-06 and 2002-08.

City officials said they have agreed to turn over both types of files.

“By allowing access to these records, the Chicago Police Department will further demonstrate that it takes allegations of police misconduct seriously,” Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said in a prepared statement. 

Craig Futterman, an attorney for Kalven, added: “We applaud the policy sea change on this matter brought about by the Emanuel administration.”

Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor, is a longtime critic of the police department’s disciplinary system.

In connection with a police misconduct lawsuit he filed on behalf of a client in 2004, Futterman found less than 1 percent of misconduct allegations against Chicago Police officers were sustained by the department’s internal investigations — a far lower rate than the national average.

In a prepared statement, though, the city put part of the blame on the people who file the complaints.

“Historically, several thousand complaints about police misconduct have been made annually, though the complainant [completed]  the required paperwork on fewer than half those cases,” according to the city.

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