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Feds’ probe of CPD stalls move to destroy misconduct files

Jamie Kalven. | Sun-Times Library

The federal investigation into the Chicago Police Department has slowed a push by police unions to destroy decades of disciplinary files on officers, a labor arbitrator ruled on Friday.

Unions representing rank-and-file officers, as well as sergeants, lieutenants and captains each filed labor grievances after a 2012 court ruling that would have turned over to activists and journalists files on police officer misconduct cases dating back to 1967. The unions complained that their contracts with the city stipulate that records should be “purged” or destroyed outright, a stance a pair of labor arbitrators initially had backed.

But the landscape changed when the U.S. Department of Justice began a probe of the police department earlier this year, and issued a “document preservation notice” to the department, arbitrator George Roumell Jr. wrote in a letter handed down Friday. Roumell in January had ordered the city and union to set a timeline for destroying those same files.

“This is really sort of a reprieve, but it is encouraging to see the arbitrators have basically reversed themselves because they see it is not good public policy to destroy these records,” said Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist who has filed a separate lawsuit to prevent the destruction of the disciplinary files and allow him to post them on his “Invisible Institute” online database.

“With all that is going on right now, there is a strong public interest in preserving those records.”

The arbitration ruling is the latest twist in a series of interlocking lawsuits and labor grievances that began in 2012, but have come to a head in the months after a wave of protests prompted by the release of video of a Chicago Police officer pumping 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Police accountability advocates and news organizations have tried to gain access to the files over the objections of union leaders, who say that many of the records are incorrect, or so old as to be irrelevant. City attorneys, who said the records are needed to help defend the department from lawsuits, also have argued in favor of preserving the records.

Attorney Craig Futterman called the ruling an important “timeout” in the tug-of-war over files he said are critical to both Justice Department investigators and Chicago citizens who have demanded reform to the CPD in recent months. The attorney representing the Fraternal Order of Police did not return calls from the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday.

Kalven already has posted information on thousands of misconduct cases, going back to 2011. Accessing earlier records has been stalled as Cook County Judge Patrick Flynn has awaited the outcome of the unions’ labor dispute.

Pending state legislation could render those long-running court cases moot, and land the records in the public domain. If the records aren’t supposed to be destroyed, they can be turned over in response to public records requests, Kalven said.

State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt said a bill she sponsored that would require police departments across the state to keep their disciplinary files forever could see a vote as soon as next week. Two bills that would require departments to preserve misconduct records, either permanently or for up to 50 years, are advancing in the state House.

“You have got to keep those kinds of records, and we see that now,” Van Pelt said Friday. “That way we can see patterns of behavior, and you have records for people who may need evidence in cases where they have been wrongfully convicted.”