Police abuse allegations finally go public

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We stand at a watershed in the long history of efforts to address patterns of police abuse in Chicago. On March 10, the state appellate court held in Kalven v. Chicago that documents bearing on allegations of police misconduct are public information. On July 11, the Emanuel administration announced that it will not appeal Kalven and that it has adopted a set of procedures for implementing the decision.

As the plaintiff and attorneys in Kalven, we engaged in extended negotiations with Corporation Counsel Steve Patton and his staff in order to settle the case. The Emanuel administration is to be commended. Not only does its new transparency policy conform to Kalven, in some respects it goes beyond what the decision requires.

This is real reform. It is important to understand why.

The documents at issue are: (1) the investigative files generated when a citizen files a complaint charging police misconduct, and (2) lists of officers who accumulated repeated complaints of abuse.

Two agencies handle police misconduct complaints for the city: the Independent Police Review Authority investigates allegations of excessive force, and Internal Affairs is responsible for allegations of corruption and a range of other offenses.

In case after case, we and others have challenged the adequacy of IPRA and Internal Affairs investigations. We have argued that the police department’s investigative system is broken and that this confers impunity on abusive officers.

Chicago Police Department data reveal that a small proportion of officers — officers who typically work together in groups — are responsible for nearly half of all abuse complaints. But the department has failed to investigate these patterns, leading abusive officers to believe they are above the law.

Beyond the harms to individual victims, this engenders pervasive distrust that greatly reduces the effectiveness of the police. A handful of abusive officers, if not held accountable, can alienate an entire neighborhood. As a result, the vast majority of officers who are trying to do their jobs do not receive the cooperation they need to prevent and solve crimes.


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