With One Change Needed to Protect Transparency, the BGA Supports the Consent Decree

The BGA testifies that language protecting public access to police documents should be improved in the Chicago police consent decree that is an important achievement.

BGA President and CEO David Greising and attorney Matt Topic asked a federal judge to review and amend passages in the Chicago Police Consent Decree that would inadvertently undermine access to public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Greising and Topic expressed support for the decree agreed to by the Illinois Attorney General, the City of Chicago, and its police department in testimony Thursday before Judge Robert Dow Jr.

“We hope the court will share in our view that open records can contribute to accountability, which can play an important role in strengthening public trust and confidence in Chicago’s police department,” Greising said.

The consent decree addresses problems that have cost Chicago taxpayers millions of dollars and undermined confidence in the Chicago Police Department, Greising stated. He cited a BGA investigation from 2016 that tallied $642 million in direct costs to the city arising from police misconduct settlements from 2004 to 2015. BGA investigators also have tallied hundreds of millions more in city money spent in the wake of wrongful convictions.

“This money could have been used for strengthening the police department, or for roads, schools or other civic purposes,” Greising said. “It could have been invested in a new police training facility.

“The consent decree strengthens police accountability because it pushes the police department to provide better training, support, and feedback to its sworn officers and commits the CPD to make final reporting of officer evaluations available to the public,” Greising continued. He praised the requirement for officers to report whenever they point a gun while on duty. “The agreement will reach into the judicial system, too, by initiating processes to ensure that prosecutors, public defenders and the CPD report to one another when an officer lies in court,” he said.

However, Griesing and Topic both said the consent decree, as written, could produce unintended negative consequences for the public’s right to information under the FOIA. The BGA has used public records extensively in investigating the CPD and, six times since 2011, the non-profit watchdog has needed to sue the CPD to compel the department to produce records. “Our reporting -- made possible through a careful analysis of police and court records -- has helped enhance accountability and, ultimately, contributed to the public’s call for reform,” Greising said.

In court and in a written letter to the judge, the BGA asked that Dow resolve the BGA’s serious transparency concerns by including a sentence that states, “Nothing in this consent decree prohibits the release of any records that are subject to disclosure under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.” The letter, signed by Greising and the BGA’s Policy Manager, Rachel Leven, is shared below.

About the Author

Rachel L. Leven

Rachel Leven is the BGA’s policy manager focusing on Chicago and Cook County. Before joining the BGA, Leven ran communications for the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG), a nationally renowned municipal oversight agency.