CHICAGO — When Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected, she vowed to “bring in the light” by making City Hall more transparent and accountable in a city with a long history of political corruption.
She recruited the city’s leading experts on good governance to help advise her transition team, but now, nearly two years into her term, that group has accused Lightfoot of ignoring their advice — and her own campaign promises.
Members of the Lightfoot transition team’s “good governance committee” published a letter last week criticizing her commitment to transparency and urged her to shine a light on police misconduct.
“You campaigned on the issues of police accountability and transparency. Now, in a moment where you have an opportunity to take meaningful action on both, we are disappointed to instead see inaction and excuses,” the letter said.
The letter was prompted by Lightfoot’s opposition to a proposal that would require the city to publish a database of closed complaints against Chicago Police officers going back to 1994. A City Council joint-committee delayed a vote on the ordinance earlier this month a day after Lightfoot criticized the proposal, citing the cost.
Lightfoot said she opposed the ordinance “as-is” 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.”
But the city’s Inspector General — and those familiar with the costs of digitizing such records — say the mayor’s cost projection was way off base.
Derek Eder, founder and partner at DataMade, is one of 16 members who signed the letter. Eder told Block Club Lightfoot’s opposition to the ordinance is part of a “larger pattern” of the mayor “not following through on [campaign commitments] or dragging her feet on them.”
The group was one of several external transition teams that presented the Mayor’s team with policy proposals to guide her time in office, Eder said. The good governance team was made up of leaders from non-profit and community groups, journalists and politicians.
The misconduct database represents a “clear opportunity for her to follow through on these major issues that she campaigned on around police accountability, and around transparency,” Eder said.
But, “when all you hear from the Mayor is criticisms and reasons why this can’t work, that gives people pause,” he said. “It impacts how people and aldermen are going to think about, and vote for this, that’s really concerning.”
Eder said there’s a “ton of value” in launching the database, even if many Chicagoans will never interact with it.
“It empowers folks who have the time and resources to really hold the city, and the administration, and the police department accountable,” he said.
The journalist-run Invisible Institute hosts an online database of police misconduct cases, serving as a vital tool for the public in examining 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.
At the committee meeting regarding the misconduct database earlier this month, Kalven said he supports the ordinance. 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.
That would follow a “cycle that I see over and over again,” Eder said, of an idea or platform originating from outside organizations later adopted by “slow and risk averse” government agencies.
“But when someone else has already done this work and shown, not just the feasibility, but the value of it, that’s time for government to step up and really do that work,” he said. “They’re accountable to the people, and they need to make this information available.”
The database would be launched and maintained by the public safety division of the Office of Inspector General.
Deborah Witzburg, deputy inspector general for public safety, told Block Club last week the database would be a “building block” towards improving trust between the Police Department and the public.
“If we are to improve the relationship between the police department and the community, that effort will necessarily involve a robust and transparent disciplinary systems so that people in uniform and out, can be confident that if and when something goes wrong, or goes badly in an interaction between the police department and the community, it will be dealt with appropriately,” she said.
Witzburg’s office estimates the database would require a first-year investment of $709,501, and $1.9 million over five years to operate, much more affordable than the “tens of millions” estimate Lightfoot cited when stating her opposition to the project.
Witzburg said the Law Department estimated in 2020 it would cost $8 -10 million to go back to 1967 to digitize largely paper records. That estimate may have informed Lightfoot’s comments, Witzburg said, but is not what is currently on the table.
“What the [current] proposal laid out in the ordinance is for the public posting of what are largely already in existence, digital, redacted, reviewed records. There’s a very small population of cases which will be reviewed and redacted newly, but we’re talking about two very different projects,” Witzburg said.
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.
Witzburg said “reform is a conversation that must happen in the light of day.”
“There is no reform without transparency,” she said. “People are, with good reason, inclined to distrust things that happen in literal and figurative windowless rooms.”
Lightfoot’s office did not respond to questions on what informed her “tens of millions” budget estimate, but said “transparency is a core part of good governance and [the mayor’s] commitment has not wavered.”
“This commitment to transparency is particularly important when it comes to reforming the Chicago Police Department. A number of historic [closed complaints] have already been produced and are available for public review. The current discussion is around adding to those historical files. Also, the consent decree mandates future production of summary files and of course the City is committed to compiling,” her office said.
The statement said Lightfoot is working with the ordinance’s sponsors and “other stakeholders to craft a workable solution” to the database and that “every case report is already publicly available through the Freedom of Information Act process, through which the City and the CPD provide thousands of reports and other documents per year.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a co-sponsor of the ordinance, delayed a vote on the proposal after several aldermen expressed concerns about the cost and the inclusion of unsubstantiated closed complaints made against officers.
Waguespack told Block Club a new meeting date has not been set, but could be scheduled in the coming weeks as aldermen await a budget analysis of the ordinance from the City Council Office of Financial Analysis and tweaks are made to the proposal. That office did not respond to a request for comment.
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