Chicago court rules citizen police complaints are public
Citizen complaints about Chicago police and the related investigative files are public records and must be turned over by the city
By David Heinzmann
CHICAGO — Citizen complaints about Chicago police misconduct and the related investigative files are public records and must be turned over by the city, an Illinois appeals court ruled this week.
A three-judge panel of the state Appellate Court in Chicago rejected the city's claim that such files are exempt from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. A spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration said Tuesday that the city would appeal the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by South Side activist and journalist Jamie Kalven, who was pursuing police misconduct records from a federal police misconduct lawsuit. But an open records expert said the ruling could have broader implications for public access to information about police oversight if the court's decision survives further challenges.
"Without a doubt, this ruling would give the public a lot more information about complaints of police misconduct and the investigations taken in response to those complaints," said Margaret Kwoka, a University of Denver law professor who previously taught in Chicago.
In a city with a troubled history of police misconduct, the ruling is a "potential watershed" in efforts to increase public oversight of the department, said Craig Futterman, the University of Chicago law professor who handled Kalven's case. Futterman handled the federal case that alleged the department routinely ignores misconduct by officers.
The appellate court's written ruling, which was dated Monday, found that complaint register files--records related to citizen complaints of police misconduct— are a matter of public record. City lawyers argued such records were covered by an exemption in the state's Freedom of Information law for "preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated."
The judges wrote that exemption only applies to "opinions that public officials form while creating government policy. It does not protect factual material or final agency decisions."
Reports and other factual information compiled in the files are public, the court said. Kwoka said the ruling makes it clear that very little material in such files could be claimed exempt by city and police officials.
"It can never apply to factual material, only to recommendations or opinions," she said. "I presume the city will attempt to redact some portions of the files on that basis, but I can't imagine it will be successful in withholding much."
Issues of what may be redacted from a file before it's turned over have to be decided on a case by case basis, the judges wrote.
The city also argued the records should be withheld because they are covered by a legal exemption for records related to "adjudication of employee grievances or disciplinary cases," but the court ruled the complaints are part of an investigation process "separate and distinct from disciplinary adjudication."
If a complaint results in disciplinary charges against an officer, records from that process may still be kept secret, the appellate court noted.
The case was sent back to the circuit court to settle questions of redacting some personal information from the records involved in Kalven's case, as well as deciding a dispute over attorney's fees in the case.
The judgment is "reason to hope this will be a significant ruling going forward -- that we as journalists and citizens generally will rely on," Kalven said Tuesday.
2014 the Chicago Tribune