Philosopher George Santayana penned this cautionary warning in 1905: “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Since then it’s been repeated or paraphrased countless times because of its instructive value, and I’m borrowing it for a watchdog warning:
Along with our Better Government Association investigations of wrongful convictions and police misconduct—their staggering cost in human and financial terms—we’ve worked to ensure that Chicago Police Department complaint files are preserved and accessible to the public.
The City of Chicago maintains records dating back to 1967, and after initial refusals the Emanuel administration now supports their release to the public.
But there’s a legal roadblock—a pending lawsuit filed by Chicago’s main police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, and other law enforcement groups that want to destroy misconduct records that are more than four years old.
The case pits the FOP’s collective bargaining contract against the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and since the BGA is committed to protecting and strengthening FOIA—one of our main investigative tools—we filed a friend of the court brief last March, arguing the records belong to the public and should be preserved.
Our public interest argument is bolstered by recent developments on the police misconduct front, including City Hall’s obligation to provide the Justice Department with enough relevant information to thoroughly investigate historic patterns and practices of racism and excessive force in CPD.
The BGA has also taken our case for preserving these records to an obscure agency established in state law to approve schedules for retaining government records and approving their destruction when they’re no longer needed.
We argued, at a recent hearing of the Local Records Commission, that destruction of those records would impair our ability to investigate patterns of misconduct that unfold over time, and trends that relate to police policies, deployment and supervision.
Destroying the records would also encourage the small number of cops repeatedly charged with abusive behavior to believe they can engage in brutality with impunity, and it would rob us of the ability to distinguish between an exemplary record and a questionable one.
The current Local Records Commission policy permits destruction of CPD misconduct records after five years, but fortunately the city has continued to preserve all of them.
The BGA, along with other advocates, asked the Commission to revoke the five-year policy and maintain the records in perpetuity.
Its chairwoman, Martha Martinez, said a hold has been placed on destruction of these records while the Commission works out a new disposal policy, and the status of the records won’t change without public notice.
It’s not the definitive answer we would have liked, but for now at least it means they’ll be able to provide invaluable, irreplaceable information on our police force, and the BGA will continue to shine a light on the need for their preservation.
We’ll also continue our court battle to prevent the destruction of police records.
All of this has an elevated importance now, in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, which has put the focus on decades-old problems inside Chicago’s police culture—problems that rocked City Hall and continue to roil the city.
If change is on the way, and there’s going to be a real—not illusory—departure from historical maladies, access to and constructive use of police complaint files are part of the past we can’t afford to forget.