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But a week after the ruling was issued it was withdrawn on grounds Kalven calls “hyper-technical,” having to do (as best I can figure) with whether Watkins cited an oral ruling or a written decision.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

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