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Police accountability — and politics

The First District of the Illinois Court of Appeals is set to rule in a police accountability case which has had some twists that can only be called bizarre – and, according to Jamie Kalven in Huffington Post, raise the question of whether the court has been influenced by political pressure.

In December, the appeals court issued a strong ruling granting an FOIA request by Kilroy Watkins, who’s serving a 55-year sentence for murder and armed robbery.  Watkins had requested the civilian complaint files for two Chicago detectives who were working under Commander Jon Burge when they arrested Watkins in 1992 and, as he’s maintained since then, coerced a confession out of him.

The City of Chicago has maintained that complaint records are personnel matters that are exempt from public disclosure requirements.  As Kalven explains, the appeals court relied on a 2009 state court ruling that established that civilian allegations of official wrongdoing are public business, and police departments can’t just hide them from the public by placing them in personnel files.

But a week after the ruling was issued it was withdrawn on grounds Kalven calls “hyper-technical,” having to do (as best I can figure) with whether Watkins cited an oral ruling or a written decision.

Political pressure?

“Did the First District yield to political pressure?” Kalven asks. “The question must be asked, though it cannot be definitively answered, for the city has consistently sought in every possible way to resist the emerging judicial consensus that [civilian complaint files] are public information.”

Watkins petitioned the state supreme court, which laid aside the appeals court’s procedural objection and directed the court to decide the case on its merits.  That decision is expected shortly.

The “logical outcome” is for the appeals court to reinstate its original ruling, Kalven says.  If it doesn’t, he suggests, it will raise serious questions about its judicial independence.

Kalven 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 rights case which the city had recently settled.  Two years later a federal appeals court overturned her decision, ruling that Kalven lacked standing – but suggesting that he could file a FOIA request under state law.

He did so that year, the city refused his request, he went to court, and in January a Cook County Circuit Court judge rendered a split decision, granting Kalven’s request for two sets of files and denying it for a third, based on a 2010 revision to the state FOIA law which seems designed to protect police officers who’ve been charged with abuse.

A new administration

Both sides are poised to appeal the unfavorable portions of the ruling, though Kalven says a settlement remains possible.  How this proceeds could indicate whether Mayor Emanuel chooses to continue the Daley administration’s practice of stonewalling on public accountability for abusive cops.

It’s a sensitive test for a new mayor publicly committed to increased transparency.

Kalven points out that the city seems to have spent far more effort and resources on covering up police misconduct than on preventing and correcting it.

Abusive officers – with a very small number racking up a huge number of civilian complaints and costing the city millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements – not only trample residents’ rights but undermine public trust in the police department, making it much harder for good cops to do their jobs, he argues.

As for Kilroy Watkins, his post-conviction petition was denied, though his claims are quite plausible.  The two detectives who arrested and charged him, Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran, have the rare distinction of having been forced to contribute $7,500 each to a $1.25 million settlement in a wrongful conviction case last year, as the Chicago Tribune recently reported.

The officers allegedly “beat, kicked, and threatened” the plaintiff in that case, according to a 2008 article by Kari Lydersen.  Another suspect in that case was allegedly handcuffed to a radiator for hours, beaten with a blackjack, and subjected to a mock execution.

In a 2001 Tribune investigation of murder cases where confessions obtained by Chicago detectives failed to hold up in court reported that “Boudreau stands out not only for the number of his cases that have fallen apart, but for the reasons.”

“He has obtained a confession from a man who, records show, was in jail when the murder occurred. He has obtained a confession from a man accused of two murders, but both cases were undermined by DNA evidence.

“He helped to get confessions from two mentally retarded teenagers for two separate murder cases, but they both were acquitted. And he got the confession of a 13-year-old with severe learning disabilities who experts said could not understand his rights.”

The man who was acquitted on DNA evidence was picked up leaving the hospital after being treated for a dislocated toe and denied any knowledge of the two murders.  He told the Trib that over 36 hours he was beaten by Boudreau repeatedly, and he confessed after Boudreau choked him, slammed him against the wall and hit him in the face – and after Boudreau was pulled off the suspect by another detective, stomped on his foot.

Maybe Governor Quinn should look into Kilroy Watkins’ case.

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Category: criminal justice, police

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