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Judge Orders Release of Police Data

While the City Council considers an ordinance that would increase transparency in the police department’s handling of misconduct complaints, the law department is opposing a legal effort to publicly release data on that very subject.

In a July 2 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow ruled in favor of a motion by journalist Jamie Kalven to lift the protective order covering police department data on misconduct complaints and investigations produced by the city during a recent lawsuit. The data included a list of 662 officers with over ten complaints over the last five years.

On July 6 the city asked Lefkow for an emergency motion staying her order so it could consider an appeal. The city asked for a stay until July 19 – the day the City Council is scheduled to consider the police reform ordinance; Lefkow granted a stay until Monday, July 16.

[UPDATE – Late on Friday, July 13, the city filed notice to appeal Lefkow’s ruling as well as motions to continue her stay.]

The ordinance proposed by Mayor Daley last month would give the Mayor direct oversight over the Office of Professional Standards, which is charged with investigating misconduct complaints. It would require quarterly public summaries by OPS.

Lefkow’s temporary stay covers the plaintiffs but lifts any restrictions from the city on sharing the data.

At a hearing on the proposed ordinance by the council’s police committee last month, aldermen asked about data from the contested documents, but a law professor testifying about patterns gleaned from the case couldn’t answer many questions due to the protective order.

Lefkow’s latest ruling would allow aldermen to receive the documents from the city, said University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who was lead attorney in Bond v. Utreras, the lawsuit which unearthed the documents.

According to Futterman, the protective order prevented him from answering council members’ questions about which units and which officers had the highest levels of complaints. “It was information they considered important to their decision about what an effective ordinance would look like,” he noted, but “the city is fighting to keep the data not just from the public but from the City Council.”

“What they risk if they succeed in deep-sixing the data is ending up with a p.r. solution that aggravates institutional denial,” he added.

The documents show “an utterly broken system,” Futterman said. While only 5 percent of officers have over ten complaints (85 percent had between zero and three over five years), the department does little or nothing to track rogue officers, and they are extremely unlikely to be punished for misconduct, he said. Out of over 10,000 complaints filed between 2002 and 2004, only 18 officers received “meaningful discipline,” he said.

Only 89 of the 662 officers with ten or more complaints were flagged for monitoring or supervision, and there were officers with over 50 complaints who hadn’t been identified by the department’s early warning system, he said.

Files of complaints and investigations in the Bond case showed that OPS investigations “violate every canon of professional investigative technique,” failing to secure physical evidence, follow up with independent witnesses or even interview accused officers, who are usually allowed to submit statements instead. Chicago’s rate of sustained complaints is a small fraction of the national average, Futterman said.

Files for five officers in a gang tactical unit who were accused in a federal lawsuit of sexually and physically abusing Diane Bond, a Stateway Gardens resident, over the period of a year showed they had racked up numerous complaints of similar abuse of African-American women in public housing, Futterman said.

The police department and officers settled out of court with Bond in December for a six-figure amount, with no admission of fault.

“The system is so woefully insufficient in supervising, monitoring and disciplining its officers that a policeman with criminal tendencies has virtual impunity,” Kalven said.

He said the costs to the city are “incalculable,” going beyond the millions of tax dollars spend on court settlements to widespread distrust of civil authority in poor neighborhoods. And he believes that any real effort to address the problem will require “a full, public acknowledgement of the harm that has been done.”

Kalven said he will make the documents available at The View From The Ground as soon as the protective order is lifted — “whether that’s Monday at 5 p.m. or in six months” in the event of an appeal by the city.

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Category: criminal justice, police

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One Response

  1. […] himself has been pursuing civilian complaint files for five years.  In 2007, Judge Joan Lefkow granted his request for the release of complaint files for five Chicago officers charged with abuse in a federal civil […]

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