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Police Misconduct Database Stalls After City Watchdog Yanks Support From Watered-Down, Lightfoot-Backed Ordinance

The proposed ordinance was scheduled for a committee vote Monday, but several aldermen opposed it after last-minute changes.

Chicago Police officers outside the Chicago Police Academy in the West Loop during a protest on June 4, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A proposal to create a database of misconduct investigations of police officers stalled Monday after the city agency in charge of building and maintaining the database refused to back a watered-down version of the plan.

Introduced last fall, the proposed ordinance would require the Office of the Inspector General’s public safety division to launch the database cataloging police misconduct files going back two decades. But the scope of what it would catalogue was scaled back during negotiations with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, drawing a rebuke last week from Inspector General Joe Ferguson and good government groups that once lent their support to the effort.

The database was previously supposed to focus on misconduct files starting in 1994, but revisions narrow the database’s range from 2000 to present. Revisions also would limit what information would be included from exhaustive investigatory files and exclude complaints related to domestic, child or sexual abuse.

At an unrelated event Monday morning, Lightfoot defended the revisions and criticized opponents of the changes as “yapping around the margins” of an ordinance she described as a “monumental” effort towards transparency.

But without the support of Ferguson and transparency advocates, several aldermen said they’d vote against the latest version of the measure if it were called for a vote Monday during the Joint Committee on Finance and Public Safety. No vote was taken Monday, keeping the effort at the committee level.

“We live in a world where perception is reality,” said Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), citing public opposition to the proposal.

“But my real big concern here is that the OIG’s office, who was tasked to implement this thing, is not supportive. Because if OIG is not on board and they’re the ones that have to implement this thing, then shame on us, because that’s basically just us jamming something down people’s throat and I’m not in the business of doing that.”

After draft language of the revisions were floated to aldermen last week, Ferguson blasted the changes as a “significantly smaller step, in scale and scope, than the one presented to City Council in April.”

Deborah Witzburg, deputy inspector general for public safety, called the changes “incremental pocket change” rather than a “transformational down payment.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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.

Unlike an earlier version of the ordinance, the measure presented Monday excluded allegations of misconduct that did not lead to an investigation, such as those that aren’t pursued because the complainant chose not to file a signed affidavit supporting the allegation.

The substitute ordinance does include finalized investigations which have one of four outcomes: “sustained, not sustained, unfounded or exonerated.”

The data would automatically include a trackable complaint number, the category of complaint, the names of the officer accused, name of the investigating agency and the final decision of the investigation. 

Following Ferguson’s criticism, the language was tweaked to clarify that investigations resulting in a “not sustained” complaint also would be included. The database also would incorporate files from the predecessors and any successor agencies to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs.

Ferguson said the language floated last week could exclude COPA’s predecessors, the Office of Professional standards — once led by Lightfoot — and the Independent Police Review Authority.

The revised ordinance was officially presented to aldermen Sunday evening and tweaked up until a meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance and Public Safety was set to begin Monday afternoon, angering some members of the committee. 

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who chairs the Finance Committee, deferred the vote, saying he’ll continue to “grind it out” to build enough support to advance the ordinance. But the alderman said Ferguson’s “nuclear” critique caught him off guard.

“The next thing I knew there were op-eds and commentaries basically saying, ‘We don’t support this at all,’ before I had a chance to go back and make amendments or try to do another back and forth,” Waguespack said.

Marie Dillon, director of policy at the Better Government Association, submitted a letter of opposition, critiquing the latest proposal as a “pretend” compromise that “defeats the intent of the previous ordinance and should not become law.”

“I encourage you to enact an ordinance that sets the standard for proactive transparency that this administration promised and the citizens of Chicago deserve. The version before you does nothing of the sort,” Dillon said.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said she supported an earlier version of the ordinance, but “what has come now is a watering down of it and then now we’re supposed to automatically just co-sign and just take something,” she said.

Waguespack, who co-sponsored the ordinance, conceded there is work to be done to find a “consensus” between the administration and its opponents, including Ferguson.

“I don’t know where the middle ground is. It’s kind of hard when it’s a zero-sum game,” he said.

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