Police misconduct reports could be public records

Rennie Simmons

Rennie Simmons won a $99,999 settlement from the City of Chicago in 2009 that stemmed from a federal lawsuit he filed alleging that Chicago police lieutenant Glenn Evans framed him with a false battery charge to cover up his own misconduct. [File photo by Marc Monaghan]

Chicago’s Law Department and police accountability activists have been going at it for years over whether the public has the right to know the names of officers accused of misconduct. This week, an Illinois court said it’s time for the city to cough them up.

The 1st District Appellate Court ruled Monday that police misconduct complaints — both the original records and the Chicago Police Department’s electronic log of them — are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Two years ago, The Reporter took a backdoor approach to identifying officers who’ve been named in multiple lawsuits for which the city had to pay damages. Allegations included beatings, false arrests and unlawful detentions.

By reviewing hundreds of lawsuits settled during a three-year period, we found so-called “repeater” officers accounted for more than a quarter of the $45.5 million in settlements paid by the city with taxpayer money. Since then, the bills have continued to mount. Just last month, the city moved to borrow up to $100 million to cover settlements, most involving police misconduct.

What has happened to these officers? When we published our investigation in May 2012, eight in 10 “repeaters” were still on the police department’s payroll.

The Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates the most serious allegations of misconduct made against police officers, has since released a report that shows police misconduct was substantiated in less than 4 percent of investigations closed between 2010 through 2012. By our count, the number of closed cases (3,845) is less than a quarter of the complaints filed during that time (17,108). So the investigating continues.

As far as Jamie Kalven, the journalist and activist who filed the lawsuit that led to Monday’s ruling, is concerned, the city is vetting the allegations “in a black box.” If the records are released, he says, they’ll offer a look into how the city handles officers who cross the line.

At this point, that’s still a big if.

Kalven initially filed the lawsuit in Cook County’s Circuit Courts back in 2009. The city has fought it every step of the way, arguing that divulging names would be akin to disclosing personnel records, which are protected, to some extent, under state open-records laws.

Judge Maureen Connors, who presides over the 1st District Appellate Court, disagreed. In the court’s unanimous opinion, she noted the city’s rationale is actually “at odds with the purpose of FOIA, which is to open governmental records to the light of public scrutiny.”

Shannon Breymaier, a spokeswoman with Chicago’s Law Department, said city attorneys are already preparing a petition to appeal the Illinois Supreme Court.

Only time will tell if the state’s high court will take the case. As Kalven notes: “The burden is really on the city now to demonstrate why several appellate court judges got it wrong.”

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