A small group of protesters confront Chicago Police officers outside the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in the West Loop late April 15, 2021 following the release of videos depicting the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago Police officer on March 29, 2021 in the Little Village neighborhood. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A proposal requiring the city to digitize and publish a database of closed complaints against police officers going back decades stalled in committee Friday over the objection of the city’s top watchdogs, who said the city is “out of runway” to earn the trust of residents on police reform.

The ordinance was sponsored by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) in response to a lawsuit that found the city has illegally withheld documents on complaints against police officers in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. 

Waguespack’s ordinance authorizes the city’s Office of the Inspector General to digitize and publish an online database of complaint reports going back to 1994, while automatically publishing some information of newly closed cases going forward.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she opposed the ordinance “as is” at an unrelated news conference Thursday, citing the “significant” expense and saying there’s already a “robust” amount of information previously made available through various lawsuits.

“Going back 30 years to paper files and the expense of digitizing them, I’m not sure what the utility of that would be,” she said. “I think it’s challenging when we’re talking about literally spending tens of millions of dollars and it will take a long time.”

A day later, Inspector General Joe Ferguson said there are “ridiculous numbers put out there recently” regarding the actual cost, and said there would be a significant cost to the city’s reputation if it blocked the ordinance from moving forward.

Deborah Witzburg, the deputy inspector general for Public Safety, told the joint committee on Finance and Public Safety Friday the database would require a first-year $709,500 investment and cost just less than $2 million over five years.

The city has paid out more than a half billion dollars in police misconduct settlements in the last 10 years.

Ferguson said the budget in the out years would be minimal and could be retained in the Office of the Inspector General’s budget, saying the ordinance is “about as good as it gets if we really care about transparency.”

Not launching the database would cost “the horrific bleed-out of the reputation of the city of Chicago and whether or not it cares to actually reform as it is legally obligated by consent decree,” Ferguson said.

“We’re out of runway. We are out of runway with respect to the public’s patience and belief that we care to reform. Transparency is about the only thing we have available to us. The costs here are incalculable and enormous.”

The joint committee was split on whether to move forward with the ordinance, with some asking to delay the vote until other city agencies reviewed the costs. A City Council Office of Financial Analysis estimate will be completed this week, said Budget Chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who supports the ordinance.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), the ordinance’s co-sponsor and chair of the Finance Committee, recessed the meeting until a “date to be determined,” but he criticized the city’s Law Department and Police Department.

Witzburg said the ordinance would both “widen and broaden” existing information already publicly available and would be built out in phases.

In the first year, the database would include records already publicly available through the Freedom of Information Act, going back to 2000 in their redacted form. In the second year, the Office of the Inspector General office could extend the database back to 1994. The second year would also see the office add reviewed and redacted investigative records from 2015 onward. 

The ordinance also calls for bi-annual hearings in City Council, which Witzburg said would allow for an ongoing “thoughtful weighing of thoughts and benefits” of expanding the database.

A limited amount of information pertaining to newly closed cases would be automatically included going forward, but further investigative records would have to be disclosed through FOIA requests. Witzburg said making those records automatically available would be something for City Council to consider in the future.

The Invisible Institute hosts an online database of police misconduct cases, serving as a vital tool for the public in examining the records of individual officers and evaluating trends in policing. The database relies on information obtained through FOIA requests and a landmark lawsuit filed by Jamie Kalven, the Institute’s executive director.

Kalven said the Invisible Institute welcomed the ordinance, saying it would “throw open the doors of the library to the public.”

“At this watershed moment in American life, as we reckon with a history of racial disparities in law enforcement, it’s critically important to create the conditions to a full, public acknowledgement of that history,” he said.

While the Invisible Institute will continue to publish their database for the “foreseeable future,” Kalven said it was always meant to serve as a model to be adapted by the government.

“There’s no way a small organization like ours can responsibly maintain an ever-expanding repository of this nature in perpetuity,” he said. 

After several aldermen, including Dowell, Matt Martin (47th) and Jason Ervin (28th), expressed support for the ordinance, other aldermen began to question the cost of the database and urged Waguespack to defer a vote to a later date.

Ervin said the ordinance contained “good stuff” and would provide the transparency residents are asking for.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) said if the database were to cost $3-$5 million, he’d rather spend that money on homeless prevention or other social services.

“I personally think that having a vote today maybe isn’t the best way to go until more people are comfortable,” Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said, saying he wanted to know if the Office of the Inspector General provided “appropriate projections.”

Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) questioned the validity of complaint files and compared them to other professions, like doctors or attorneys who receive complaints that can’t be verified.

Witzburg responded that a “closer analogy” comes within law enforcement, itself.

“The Chicago Police Department posts on its website arrest records, and it posts those records along with somebody’s name and photograph, regardless of what happens with that arrest. So if somebody is arrested and not charged or arrested and not convicted, the record of their arrest, complete with their name and photograph, remains publicly available on the Chicago Police Department’s website,” she said.

Witzburg noted the ordinance is being considered at the same time as the city is seeing protests over newly released video that shows a police officer killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

“I find myself back before you today on another day it seems important to say out loud that we need to look no further than the headlines of the day to measure the urgency of this work,” she said. “If the question is, ‘Why do this now?,’ I think the answer is because we haven’t done it already.”

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