The Citizens Police Data Project contains more than 56,000 complaints against more than 8,500 Chicago police officers. Credit: Sun-Times

A multitude of police misconduct complaint records are now available online, thanks to the tireless work of the Invisible Institute, a south-side nonprofit. Tuesday morning’s publication of the records is a triumph for freedom of information that could greatly help efforts to hold police accountable—but the release comes with a big asterisk, courtesy of a Cook County judge and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Citizens Police Data Project is a searchable database that contains more than 56,000 complaints filed against more than 8,500 Chicago police officers between 2001 and September of this year. There are gaps in that 14-year period, but the database has every allegation of misconduct made against an officer between March 2011 and this September.

Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute, pressed for publication of the records for more than a decade, and last year, the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School won an appellate ruling on his behalf. In response to Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Sun-Times and Tribune after that ruling, the city of Chicago said it would release a list of all police misconduct complaint records dating to 1967. 

But the FOP, the union representing Chicago police officers, asked Cook County Chancery Court judge Peter Flynn to block the release of the records, contending that publication of the records would violate terms of its contract with the city. Flynn issued a preliminary injunction limiting release of the records to the last four years. The city has appealed, and the matter is currently before the appellate court, which has been fully briefed but has not yet scheduled oral arguments.

Kalven, John Conroy, and the Better Government Association have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. Conroy is the former Chicago Reader writer who, 25 years ago, broke the story of police torture of suspects by former police commander Jon Burge and detectives working under him on the south side. The brief maintains that the misconduct records at issue are important in the continuing review of confessions in Burge-related cases.

It also asserts that release of the records will allow the public “to examine patterns of abuse which reveal themselves over time periods longer than merely four years,” and to determine how the police department and the city “have addressed complaints of police misconduct over time.” Fewer than 3 percent of the 56,000 misconduct complaints released Tuesday resulted in disciplinary action. Flynn’s ruling “deprived the public of its ability to understand, evaluate and…participate in the oversight and monitoring of the Chicago Police Department,” the brief says.

Let me point to a specific problem caused by Flynn’s injunction. I’ve been researching a fatal shooting by a Chicago police officer for an upcoming Reader story. The shooting occurred in July 2011; in December 2013, the Independent Police Review Authority deemed the shooting justified. Through a recent Freedom of Information Act request, I sought records IPRA relied on to reach its conclusion, including the statements given by the shooting officer and other officers on the scene. An IPRA lawyer informed me that the records were indeed subject to disclosure—except that the shooting had occurred more than four years ago, and thus were barred from disclosure by Judge Flynn’s order.

IPRA routinely takes two to three years to investigate and rule on shootings by police officers, and during that period, records related to the shooting are exempt from disclosure. Combined with Judge Flynn’s ruling, that means IPRA records in police shootings are subject to disclosure for only a year or two after the agency quietly posts its summary report on its website. This insulates the vast majority of police shooting investigations from public scrutiny.

The Citizens Police Data Project website provides the number of complaints against particular officers made in the last four years, and the investigative results, when known (typically sustained, not sustained, unfounded, or exonerated). The date, address, and nature of particular alleged misconducts are also provided. It’s a valuable tool for researchers, but the appellate court could make it far more valuable.