Transparency compromised in Emanuel’s police oversight plan

Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears with police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on March 28, 2016. (File photo)

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears with police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on March 28, 2016. (File photo)

As Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson moved to fire five officers who were involved in the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, the Police Department quietly refused this week to release the report by the city inspector general that influenced Johnson’s decision.

The Police Department cited a state law that exempts inspectors general investigatory reports from Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. The city inspector general’s office also would not release the document, which The Chicago Reporter requested, stating that an ordinance prohibits the office from disclosing the reports.

At issue, given the FOIA exemption, is whether the inspector general’s office is the best place for a new police oversight agency proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday.

The mayor’s plan would replace the widely criticized Independent Police Review Authority and create a new agency led by a deputy inspector general of public safety who would oversee the police disciplinary structure. The deputy would be empowered to audit the new police oversight agency and also to revisit investigations into specific allegations of misconduct – similar to the investigation into the McDonald shooting.

But under the law and the ordinance, documents created in the course of those audits and investigations by the office could remain hidden from the public.

That’s a problem, according to advocates for police accountability.

“It is difficult to assess the quality and the integrity of the work of the agency without being able to have a view into the basis for its conclusions,” said Craig Futterman, director of the University of Chicago Law School’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, who has written a competing police oversight ordinance.

Katie Hill, a senior policy analyst for the mayor’s office, said the city’s hands are tied by the state law.

Under the mayor’s proposal, the deputy inspector general for public safety would also have the ability to audit Police Department policies and analyze trends in police complaints, lawsuits and discipline. The inspector would provide public reports on its audits, including a description of the scope of the review, the findings and conclusions, recommendations to the department and the department’s response.

Matt Topic, a lawyer for Loevy & Loevy who filed the lawsuit that forced the release of the McDonald video, said public access to the inspector general’s work is important.

“In concept, it’s probably better to have an inspector general who is a little more independent,” said Topic. “But if the result of that is going to be that you’re never going to be able to get those documents—even after the investigation is complete—that would be a pretty significant problem.”

Sharon Fairley, the chief administrator of IPRA, referred the McDonald shooting investigation to the inspector general’s office in the wake of the court-ordered release of dash cam video of the shooting of the African-American teenager last year. Ordinarily, IPRA would have investigated the case.

The McDonald shooting isn’t the first high-profile police misconduct case the inspector general has investigated. In the first quarter of this year, the office completed a five-year investigation into the botched police investigation into the death of David Koschman who died in 2004 after being punched by a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. In that case, as in the McDonald case, the inspector general recommended discipline for officers involved, but the investigatory report was not released.

Mia Sissac, a spokeswoman for IPRA, said Fairley sticks by her decision to refer the McDonald investigation to the inspector general’s office. It was the only agency with the capacity to conduct the investigation that was “unsullied” by the previous handling of the McDonald case, she said.

“We had to make sure that the public had trust in the process,” she said.

Now that the process is over, Futterman said, the inspector general should release its investigatory record, just as IPRA would have done had it conducted the investigation.

“Something that is public and publicly available (if investigated) under IPRA … shouldn’t magically go dark because they decide to refer it and have someone else, in this case the inspector general, do the investigation,” he said. “That’s wholly unjustified.”