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Activists call for state law to keep police misconduct files from being destroyed

Cities across the state should have to keep police misconduct records permanently, leaders of the Chicago NAACP and State Rep. La Shawn Ford said Monday.

The call comes as the Chicago officials are locked in a legal battle with police unions that want all complaint files older than five years destroyed, and amid outrage over recent police shootings in the city.

At a news conference with NAACP leaders at the Thompson Center, Ford, D-Chicago, said he was working with the civil rights group on draft legislation and hoped to see a bill come to a vote by spring.

“My understanding is it’s simple: don’t destroy the records. Keep them forever. In today’s time, it’s clear that we can do that,” said Ford, whose district comprises a slice of the West Side of the city and portions of Near West suburbs including LaGrange and Berwyn.

“The only people or organization that destroying the records would benefit would be the police.”

The legislative push is the latest front in a battle over tens of thousands of files detailing complaints against CPD officers dating back to 1969. NAACP members will attend a meeting Tuesday of the Cook County Local Records Commission, which sets record rentention policy for the county.

The city has kept police disciplinary records but is currently embroiled in a legal dispute with police unions, who claim union contracts with the city mandate that the records be destroyed after five years. Meanwhile, journalist Jamie Kalven has sued the city to make public all police disciplinary files, a case that has been stalled by the unions’ grievance.

The city, joined by Kalven and University of Chicago Law School professor Craig Futterman, has so far fought in court keep the records. Kalven, who has posted basic information from several thousand cases on his Invisible Institute website, is trying to force the city to turn over all files dating back to 1969, even as he and Futterman have joined with the city to prevent the dispute with unions to ignite a “bonfire” of the remaining files.

In court filings, city attorneys have said the records have to be preserved to protect the city in lawsuits involving police officers, and Kalven on Monday pointed out that the city still is involved in litigation over misconduct that occurred decades ago.

Union officials claim that the records frequently are inaccurate and most of the complaints were not sustained by the department, and that such records should not follow officers for their entire careers. The union filed their first grievances in 2012, after a court ruling in Kalven’s lawsuit that would force the city to make all the files public.

Police officers deserve to have their disciplinary records expunged after years have passed, said Dean Angelo, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents rank-and-file officers. Most complaints against officers are found by investigating authorities to be unsubstantiated, Angelo said.

“A lot of what’s going on now is reactionary about allegations. Allegations are just that. They’re not sustained,” he said. “There’s a shelf life on crime, and people get their records expunged all the time … but when your job is to defend the safety of people you don’t even know, you give up those rights?”Kalven, who did not attend the NAACP press conference, voiced his support for a state law that would preserve police disciplinary files permanently.

“There are multiple fronts we’re fighting on to keep these records,” Kalven said. “It’s ironic that this is all coming to a head at a moment when there is intense interest in those files… this is critical information for diagnosing and fixing a dysfunctional system.”