It’s no secret that the Chicago Police Department, or CPD, has struggled with corruption and a lack of accountability. Another area where it has fallen short is in following the state’s open-records laws.
Last month, the Better Government Association, or BGA, sued CPD over its refusal to comply with requests made under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. According to the complaint, BGA asked for correspondence between city aldermen and police district commanders as part of an investigation on how political influence may unduly sway law-enforcement activities. FOIA requires any government agency to respond to a request for information within five days: CPD did not. In fact, CPD did not respond at all, and it didn’t even bother to make up an excuse for its failure to comply with the law; it simply said nothing, even after follow-up requests.
FOIA is one of the best tools watchdogs and citizens have to keep government honest. With the growth of the administrative state, policy is increasingly created and carried out by government employees, including police officers, who can’t be kept accountable through elections. One of the only ways we can find out what they’re doing is from records obtained through FOIA requests.
And unfortunately, it’s too often the case that the only way to keep the inner workings of government agencies like the CPD transparent to taxpayers – that is, to make them follow the law they are sworn to uphold – is to sue.
One example of this is Chicago’s refusal, until recently, to allow members of the public to see police-misconduct reports. It was only in June of this year, after losing a lawsuit, that the cityfinally started allowing the public to see police-misconduct complaints. The city’s press release gave lip service to the idea that “allowing access to these records” helps “demonstrate that it takes allegations of police misconduct seriously.” But this change would not have come about without public pressure and court action.
We need police transparency now more than ever. The city of Chicago has paid over half a billion dollars in damages and fees for police misconduct in the last decade. And the city has yet to implement reforms that would suggest a change in this trend.
If CPD is tasked with enforcing the law yet feels that it can disregard the law with impunity, how can we expect citizens to take it seriously? Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Hammond, Indiana, among other places, have shown a lack of public trust in our criminal-justice institutions. But we can’t have an open discussion or point the way to reform if the public is kept in the dark.
Hopefully, if CPD isn’t forthcoming in providing information, court action will force it to be. The department’s opacity makes ordinary citizens all too dependent on such action.