Chicago authorities must notify journalists and activists before they destroy decades of records related to police misconduct, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn ruled in an emergency order Thursday.
The order comes after journalist and activist Jamie Kalven petitioned the court after police officials said they would destroy hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence, investigative files and computer records related to Chicago police officer misconduct reports older than four years.
The documents are among a trove of data requested by Kalven and other media organizations, including the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, dating back to 1967. Last year, city officials agreed to release all of the police misconduct information, but the city’s police unions sued to prevent the documents from becoming public and the issue remains in limbo. The case will eventually be decided by an Illinois appeals court.
The emergency order comes in the wake of a large public outcry following the release of the video that shows police officer James Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder hours before the video’s release.
Kalven and his attorney, Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor, played a critical role in the release of the dash-cam footage by reporting on the video’s existence and demanding that officials release it. Kalven expressed relief at the judge’s order, saying it would give him time to go back to court before authorities could set a “bonfire” to decades’ worth of key information about police misconduct in Chicago. “Ministers, civic groups … are all calling for a full examination of the systems of accountability in the city.”
Futterman called the order a “band-aid” and said it’s unclear what would happen if police officials notify journalists they plan to destroy the records. “We would do everything in our power to stop it, but we proactively need to work toward a permanent solution,” he said.
Thousands more recent electronic records have already been released to Kalven under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit decided last year. His organization, the Invisible Institute, made the records available in a searchable database.
As Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) fired the city’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, on Tuesday, he simultaneously appointed a new commission to examine whether changes are necessary in how police are disciplined.
Even though the records have never been destroyed as a practice, the two police unions argue that the release of them would violate the city’s binding contract with its officers.
An arbitrator sided last month with the Chicago Police Benevolent & Protective Association, which represents higher-ranking officers, saying the city’s contract allows them to erase summary misconduct database records. In a pending decision, an arbitrator is also expected to side with the Fraternal Order of Police that the contract should allow the destruction of all misconduct records older than four years, said Futterman.
FOP President Dean Angelo said officers and their families shouldn’t be subjected to harassment from decades-old complaints, many of which are unsubstantiated allegations.
“The necessity to go backwards, I don’t think they’ll find anything … that’s going to fix what’s going on in the communities in the city or around the country,” Angelo said, adding, “nobody comes on this job to be subjected to constant evaluation for 35 years.”
Angelo said the union would agree to an expedited process for investigating officers and disciplining them in its new contract.
Activists have long raised concerns over whether officers are investigated or disciplined after the complaints, which number about 10,000 a year, according to Futterman. The McDonald video, which appears to contradict the official police version of events, has deepened suspicions and provoked outrage.
“Are there officers with large amounts of complaints?” Angelo said. “I’d be lying if I said no.”
Futterman said destroying the records would also make it difficult or impossible to get new hearings for those who the city has acknowledged were tortured into coerced confessions. Futterman serves on the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, tasked with examining whether those who allege coerced confessions deserve new hearings. The commission has more than 100 cases pending after the city recently acknowledged that police tortured hundreds between 1972 and 1991 under notorious former police commander Jon Burge.
“So while we’re having this conversation about openness, honesty, transparency, distrust and lack of accountability, the destruction of these records would ensure impunity for officers who have engaged in abuse,” Futterman said. “I can’t imagine a worse time than this.”