CHICAGO (CBS) — A bonfire of critical police misconduct records – critics fear that is what could happen if Chicago’s police union wins its fight to destroy the files.
CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov has uncovered it is a fight the Fraternal Order of Police is waging in court, and behind the scenes at the bargaining table.READ MORE: At Least 8 People Wounded In Weekend Shootings In Chicago
In cases of police misconduct, emotions run high and the damage runs deep. And until five years ago, the struggle of victims of police misconduct and their families was made even more difficult – because police misconduct records were still secret.
They were kept hidden even though officer complaints were piling up, patterns of wrongdoing were developing, and taxpayers were shelling out tens of millions of dollars in brutality cases – like those against former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
The late Burge was accused of torturing numerous criminal defendants into confessions.
But then, two men fought to get misconduct complaints released to the public. Those men were University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, and journalist Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute – a public website that contains all police misconduct records.
“It was a battle,” Kalven said. “It was close to 10 years and, you know, an extraordinary amount of work.”
And now, it is all in jeopardy.
“What’s terrifying is that what’s at risk – and not to be Chicken Little here – is that hundreds of thousands of thousands of records – of police misconduct records – can go up on smoke,” Futterman said, “and that means forever. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing Chicago Police officers, is asking the Illinois Supreme Court to allow them to destroy all police misconduct records older than five years.
“And it couldn’t come at a worse time,” Futterman said.
Just a year ago – Chicago police entered into a federal consent decree mandating reforms – following decades of misconduct and even torture complaints
“The data and information that’s at stake in this case is of absolutely critical importance to that process,” Kalven said.
That is especially true since all the past misconduct resulted in little discipline for offending officers.
“Almost always, the finding was in the favor of the police officer,” Kalven said.
Futterman and Kalven say the records are critical to exposing patterns of misconduct that highlight problem officers.
Take Officer James Hunt.
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CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards later discovered that Hunt said that four years after he actually killed 17-year-old Deshawn Pittman – shooting him 10 times. It was all mapped out in Pittman’s autopsy report, which was viewed by his grandmother as she cried on camera.
A deeper dive into Hunt’s past found he had eight misconduct allegations against him in less than six years. And he’s still on the street.
“That investigation is working its way to me and I will make a decision,” Interim police Supt. Charlie Beck said of the Hunt case.
Beck said he has mixed thoughts on whether all misconduct records should remain public.
“I think that everybody understands that police officers are often subject to unfounded complaints, and do the full details of those need to be revealed? I think that’s a different question,” Beck said. “Sustained complaints I don’t have such an issue with.”
Past courts have repeatedly ruled misconduct records are public records.
After Futterman and Kalven won their case, they put all CPD misconduct cases on the Invisible Institute website.
They say if the FOP wins and gets the previous rulings reversed, basic information will stay on the web site. But case details will be destroyed.
“All that evidence – I mean, the hardcore evidence, the statements themselves; the statements of officers, the statements of witnesses, the underlying physical evidence, the underlying medical evidence – that would all be destroyed,” Futterman said.
Futterman said destroying records wouldn’t only be bad for victims.
He said it could also make it hard to fire officers – like Patrick Kelly, who is now before the Police Board facing termination. Kelly also has a history of complaints and cost the city a $44 million jury verdict after being accused of shooting friend Michael LaPorta in the head.
Record destruction, Futterman said, could also hurt the city.
“If they destroy these records, they will be unable to defend itself and all this litigation, and will be subject to liability that would just blow up the city,” Futterman said.
Ultimately, he said, it’s the community that would suffer most – impacting CPD as it tries to restore broken trust.
“People don’t trust the police, so this is the very kind of thing that is so critically necessary to our public safety; to solving violence; to getting rid of police abuse in Chicago; to finally addressing patterns and practices of civil rights violations,” Futterman said.
The FOP’s president said the union is trying to do what is best for its members.
But it is more than a state Supreme Court case. Unions representing CPD rank-and-file supervisors are also in arbitration with the city, trying to get record destruction put into their contracts.
In a statement, the mayor’s office said:
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“City government has an obligation to remain transparent to its residents, which is why we adamantly do not support any actions that would destroy public information records and documents, including officer disciplinary records. Doing so would not only violate applicable laws and court orders but deprive the public of important information that belongs to them.”
The Illinois Supreme Court is expected to hear the case this spring.