On Monday, April 23, within hours of Democratic state rep Anthony Deluca filing a bill to amend Illinois’s Freedom of Information law, a crescendo of opposition arose from civil rights lawyers and government transparency advocates. The amendment would’ve made misconduct complaints against police officers (and other records associated with pending criminal cases) off-limits in FOIA requests. Dozens of opponents filed witness slips, written statements, against this suggested change, and ultimately DeLuca backed down: he decided he would not be calling the bill for a debate.
DeLuca said Thursday that the suggested language for the amendment came from the city of Chicago Heights—he couldn’t explain the intent of the proposed changes. DeLuca is the former mayor of the majority-black town, which falls in his Illinois house district, the 80th, in Chicago’s south suburbs.
“There was a lack of support for the concept, so we will not be proceeding with this language,” DeLuca said. Indeed, no one filed a single witness slip in support of the proposed amendment.
Representatives of Chicago Heights didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Advocates who protested the proposed amendment say law enforcement representatives and other special interest groups regularly lobby for changes to Illinois’s FOIA law that would make it harder to learn about officers’ alleged misconduct. The arguments for these changes often rest on protecting officers’ privacy or safeguarding the integrity of criminal investigations.
“Imagine a situation in which someone says they were beaten up by the police, and police say the person was committing a crime at the time,” says attorney Matt Topic of Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago firm specializing in civil rights litigation. “Under the [proposed] bill as I read it, so long as charges were pressed then the public would lose access to records about what happened until the case was over.”
Since criminal cases often take years to resolve, the amendment would make it impossible to monitor misconduct claims in real time, Topic says. And since police have historically tended to file criminal charges against people they’ve assaulted, Topic argues, “it would make it harder for people to hold the police accountable for potential misconduct.”
Topic illustrates this problem with a hypothetical: “Laquan McDonald was killed, so they couldn’t charge him with a crime. But if he hadn’t been killed and they’d elected to charge him with a crime, we would still be waiting to see that video.”
The video of the 2014 shooting of the 17-year-old by officer Jason Van Dyke was released after independent journalist Brandon Smith filed a FOIA request for it and a judge ruled that the police department had to comply.
Topic also points out that the amendment filed by DeLuca would not serve the public because it would prevent people from finding out details about crimes committed in their communities. Any documents pertaining to a crime (beyond arrest reports, which become public through the courts) would be off-limits. “You would not get the witness accounts of what happened, you would not get the video of what happened,” Topic emphasizes. “You would only get whatever the story the police were telling about what happened.”