An Illinois appellate court handed police accountability activists a major victory Friday when it ruled that all police misconduct records going back to 1967 are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. But now the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago’s police union, says it plans to appeal the decision in a last ditch effort to block public access to the records.
Pasquale Fioretto, an attorney who represents the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, confirmed Tuesday that the FOP is seeking permission to appeal Friday’s decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. The records will remain off limits while the Supreme Court considers taking the case in the next month or two. If the court does take the case, the fate of the records could take years more to decide.
But the impending release of the documents is far more likely.
The fight over making police misconduct records subject to Illinois FOIA laws began in 2009, when independent journalist Jamie Kalven filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department for denying FOIA requests pertaining to police misconduct. In 2014 an Illinois appellate court found that documents bearing allegations of police abuse are public information subject to the state’s FOIA law.
In compliance with this ruling, the city made an unprecedented move toward transparency, and prepared to release all records pertaining to misconduct for every Chicago police officer dating back to 1967. However, the police union interfered, and secured an injunction on all but the last five years of these records, claiming that keeping older misconduct records violated the union’s contract with the city.
Friday’s decision vacated the injunction and leaves the FOP few options for recourse.
Less than 5 percent of petitions to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court are granted every year. Nevertheless, “hope springs eternal,” Fioretto says. “We’re hoping that it’s a novel enough issue that they’ll consider [the appeal].”
If the state Supreme Court refuses to hear the appeal, Fioretto says the FOP will try to convince the lower court to exempt records pertaining to alleged off-duty misconduct. Notably, that would exclude records of cases like that of police detective Dante Servin, who was off-duty when he killed 22-year old Rekia Boyd outside a party in 2012.
“I think they’re grasping at straws with that,” Kalven says. “I find the off-duty argument completely implausible.”
Even if the FOP succeeded in its quest to protect such records from public scrutiny, they would comprise just a small fraction of the overall data.
Since November 2015, Kalven’s Invisible Institute, a south-side journalism outfit dedicated to investigative reporting for government accountability, has operated an expansive database of more than 56,000 police misconduct allegations spanning the past 11 years. Disciplinary records for all CPD officers are available and curated for the past five years, as are records for officers who racked up the highest number of complaints going back to 2005.
“We’ve had a promising, active collaboration with the city in building a whole new regime of transparency in Chicago,” Kalven says. However, the movement to open up CPD’s vast archives—and those of IPRA, the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct—was stalled when the FOP requested the injunction.
Though its database is prepared to absorb massive amounts of new information, Kalven says it is impossible to estimate how many documents may be in the city’s archives.
“The sheer scale of it is stunning,” says Kalven. “There’s never been transparency in law enforcement on this scale. There are at least three databases going back to 1967.”
Kalven says the information therein will allow the public to understand what he calls the “relational universe” within Chicago law enforcement for the first time.
For example, these records would make it possible to track an officer’s history of misconduct in tandem with his or her progress and promotions throughout the force.
“Right now our understanding of the code of silence is mostly anecdotal,” Kalven explains. “I think part of the promise of this great data dump is to be able to come up with a statistical profile of the code of silence and how it works.”
The FOP has 35 days to file its petition, and a decision from the state Supreme Court is expected quickly. In the meantime, the Invisible Institute is planning for the release of nearly 50 years of records—sooner or later.