The Chicago Police Department has long kept its records of police misconduct secret, even as the city continues to pay out millions to victims of brutality. Now, after a state appeals court ruling, the department will have to release that information as public records.
The CPD tried to withhold complaints of misconduct from a journalist, Jamie Kalven, who filed a Freedom of Information request for the records of five officers. The appeals court determined these files count as public records. A lower court will decide whether the department can still black out sensitive information like cops’ names and phone numbers.
The decision could be transformative for Chicago. Civil rights activists and attorneys may now be able to identify and sound the alarm on cops with a record of abuse, such as the CPD officer who recently ducked criminal charges for shooting an unarmed man 16 times — his third shooting in six months. In response to questions about why the officer was allowed to remain on the streets after so many shootings, the police superintendent said the department had no way of tracking officers’ records.
Greater transparency may also put more pressure on the department to follow through on complaints and hold cops more accountable. Currently, complaints of misconduct against police rarely result in any kind of disciplinary action, and the internal investigation process is murky at best. A study by University of Chicago professor Craig Futterman found that just 19 of 10,149 complaints accusing CPD officers of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse, sexual abuse, and false arrests led to a police suspension of a week or more. In more than 85 percent of internal investigations of complaints, the accused officer was never even interviewed.
While police chiefs argue that police brutality is not endemic and can be chalked up to a few bad cops, many departments’ knee-jerk reaction to complaints is to look the other way, rather than expel the offenders. Whistleblowers who report their fellow officers say they are bullied and threatened.