Police brutality leaves two victims in its violent wake: Physically abused suspects, who obviously suffer the most painful injuries; and taxpayers, who take a financial beating when government is ordered to compensate targets of excessive force.
Consider: It’s cost Chicago taxpayers more than $500 million to settle brutality lawsuits over the last decade, a BGA investigation revealed last year. We also found that suburban Cook County spent $42 million to settle similar cases in the past five years.
Relatively few cops, including former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his infamous torture crew, are responsible for most of the egregious behavior that sparked the lawsuits.
Still, some Illinois law enforcement officials want to purge those painful memories by destroying documents that can provide valuable information about patterns of police misconduct, or uncovered evidence.
They’re seeking court permission to expunge records that go back more than four years.
The BGA is strongly opposed, as we argued in a recent “friend of the court” filing.
Our amicus brief says it’s “the right of the public to access information about its government, and specifically, to know about and analyze allegations of misconduct made against police officers and how those allegations are handled by those in power.”
We’re joining opponents of a lawsuit filed by several Chicago Police unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which is made up of 12,000 beat cops.
FOP claims its collective-bargaining agreement and the state’s Freedom of Information Act allow exemptions for misconduct records.
Last year, in a different case, the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed, ruling that records involving allegations, investigations, and police misconduct settlements aren’t exempt from FOIA requests and must be made available for public scrutiny.
After that decision the Chicago Tribune requested some of the records, and the city and Police Department agreed to provide them.
That prompted the FOP lawsuit, so the requests are now on hold until the Appellate Court rules on the new challenge. Remember — once records are destroyed they’re gone forever, and the loss would be incalculable. It would impair our ability to investigate patterns of misconduct that unfold over time, and trends that relate to police policies, deployment and supervision.
In 2011 the BGA co-authored an investigation of wrongful convictions that identified police misconduct as a leading factor in rigged cases that sent dozens of innocent men and women to prison for a total of hundreds of years. That’s why the BGA and two journalists with long histories of exposing police misconduct — Jamie Kalven and John Conroy — joined the FOP lawsuit by filing an amicus brief. Conroy was the BGA’s lead investigator on our wrongful-convictions series. Let me repeat that relatively few officers are responsible for most of the misconduct cases.
But the destruction of police files robs us of the ability to distinguish between an exemplary record and a questionable one.
More troubling, secrecy enables the small number of cops who’ve repeatedly been charged with abusive behavior to believe they can engage in brutality with impunity.
And that is truly a miscarriage of justice. So in the spirit of transparency and accountability, let’s preserve records that, to paraphrase the motto emblazoned on the side of city squad cars, “serve and protect” both the public and the police.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.
Image courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times.