CHICAGO — The city could create a public database of complaints made against Chicago police officers going back two decades after Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a City Council ally reached a compromise.
The ordinance authorizes the Office of the Inspector General to create and maintain the database, which includes closed complaints made against officers since 2000, in an effort to “enlighten the public and aid in restoring faith in our police force.”
An earlier version of the measure called for the database to go back to 1994, but a vote on the ordinance was delayed when co-sponsor Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) recessed a joint meeting of the finance and public safety committees last month, one day after Lightfoot stated her opposition. Lightfoot said she was concerned about the cost to launch the database.
The amended ordinance, first reported by WTTW, is set for a vote Monday when the joint committee reconvenes. A final vote could be held by the City Council on May 26.
But the compromise was criticized Wednesday by the agency that will be charged with creating and maintaining the database, as being a “significantly smaller step, in scale and scope than the one presented to City Council in April.”
“The road to reform is a very long one; we need to be leaping by miles, not leaning by inches,” Inspector General Joe Ferguson said in a statement Wednesday.
Deborah Witzburg, deputy inspector general for public safety, told Block Club last month the database represented a “building block” towards improving trust between the Police Department and the public, but criticized the changes on Wednesday as “incremental pocket change” rather than a “transformational down payment.”
“We need to meet contemporary standards of transparency as defined by the courts and expected by society, not fall back to the secrecy objectives of a dark past whose legacy echoes today, to the detriment of trust and legitimacy in the Chicago Police Department and the government of the City of Chicago,” she said in a statement.
The compromise limits the scope of the original ordinance co-sponsored by Waguespack and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), the chair of the Public Safety Committee, including changing the definition of what constitutes a “finalized investigation” of misconduct.
The new measure strips a provision to include misconduct allegations that were “closed by the investigating agency without findings or recommendations.”
That revision would not only leave out cases where officers were exonerated, but those that were “mediated” or “which were closed—properly or otherwise—without reaching a finding, or any officer-involved shootings for which no one was subject to administrative discipline,” Ferguson’s office said.
The previous version called for OIG to produce both a summary of the cases and investigative records, but the new version would “contain only summary reports of investigation which have been curated and provided by the City’s Department of Law,” Ferguson’s office said.
Witzburg said last month including closed complaints against officers stretching back further than 2000 was important because there are members of the department who began their service in the early ’80s and it can often take “years and decades” for litigation stemming from police misconduct to work its way through the court system.
“Those cases take a very long time to resolve. There are cases being litigated in courtrooms all over Cook County, involving conduct of Police Department members going back many, many, many years,” she said.
Witzburg said then the ordinance is limited to “the public posting of what are largely already in existence, digital, redacted, reviewed records,” already available through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Lightfoot’s opposition to the ordinance led a group of good government advocates, who advised her 2019 mayoral transition team, to pen a letter criticizing the mayor for not living up to her campaign pledges “on issues of police accountability and transparency.”
Lightfoot said the project could cost “tens of millions of dollars” when she opposed the ordinance in April, but the Office of the Inspector General said the database would require a $709,501 first investment and cost just $1.9 million over five years.
The City Council Office of Financial Analysis reviewed the proposal and concurred with the lower estimate, The Daily Line reported.
At the April joint committee meeting, Ferguson criticized the “ridiculous numbers put out recently” by Lightfoot. He said if the database was not created, it would come at the cost 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.”
“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,” Ferguson said.
Lightfoot said Wednesday the measure has her support.
“In order to mend the wounded relationship between the Chicago Police Department and the communities they serve, it is critically important that we double-down on our efforts to root the value of transparency within the department,” she said in a statement touting the proposal.
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 group’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 its database for the “foreseeable future,” Kalven said it was always meant to serve as a model to be adapted by the government.
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