CITY HALL — A months-long legislative battle over police transparency is set to come to a head Monday afternoon as aldermen vote whether to compile two decades’ worth of police misconduct complaints into a public database.
The City Council Joint Committee on Finance and Public Safety is scheduled at 1 p.m. to reconvene its meeting from last month to take up an ordinance that would order Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office publish the “complaint register” files, all of which an Illinois judge has ruled should be accessible to the public. The ordinance has been heavily pared back since its September 2020 introduction, much to the frustration of government watchdog groups and Ferguson.
Ferguson publicly torched a draft of the ordinance that circulated last week, saying a series of edits imposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration “will profoundly limit its transparency value.” Specifically, he and Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg cited a new provision they interpreted as limiting the database so it would only include complaints in which a “disciplinary recommendation” had been rendered by an oversight agency.
Ferguson, Witzburg and members of groups like the Better Government Association and the Invisible Institute have argued misconduct complaints can help paint patterns of individual and systemic wrongdoing, even if they are not officially substantiated.
Investigative journalist Jamie Kalven also excoriated last week’s draft, writing in a Tribune op-ed that the compromise measure was “worse than nothing.”
But a spokesperson for Lightfoot wrote in a statement late Thursday that Ferguson’s “interpretation of this proposed ordinance is incorrect.”
“This database will include summary reports concerning alleged police misconduct, subject to limited exceptions, where a decision was made, not only those where discipline was recommended,” the spokesperson wrote. “With this amount [of] data, the site will be in the vanguard of cities regarding policing transparency across the country and will include tens of thousands of individual reports of police misconduct and their respective corresponding discipline.”
A newly revised substitute ordinance sent to aldermen Sunday evening added language to clarify that the database will include records of complaints that were “not sustained, unfounded, or exonerated.” It also clarifies that the database will extend to records kept by now-dissolved Independent Police Review Authority and other predecessor agencies to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which was created in 2017.
The latest version also directs Ferguson to publish biannual status reports on implementation to his office’s website, where the draft circulated last week only required direct reports to the mayor’s office and City Council.
The two drafts are otherwise identical.
Marie Dillon, policy director of the Better Government Association, submitted a letter to the joint committee in advance of Monday’s meeting urging a “no” vote. She noted that while the updated draft would require Ferguson to publish summary information on all complaints, it would still require members of the public to file Freedom of Information Act requests — which police often reject, ignore or improperly restrict — for more detailed underlying information.
“Any meaningful examination of investigative outcomes will still have to go through the long, expensive and adversarial process that the previous ordinance was meant to address,” Dillon wrote. “A vote for the current version is a vote for continued disregard for transparency around police misconduct and the attendant waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) introduced the ordinance last September directing Ferguson to publish a “searchable, downloadable digital repository” of closed misconduct complaints filed against sworn Chicago Police officers, with no definite backward-looking timeline. They have since clipped the breadth of the ordinance multiple times — the most recent draft would only require the inclusion of records going back to 2000.
Waguespack defended the edits last week, saying he and Taliaferro always intended to introduce a broad ordinance and then spend months sharpening it with the input of aldermen, advocates and administration officials.
Ferguson gave an impassioned defense of the ordinance during a committee hearing last month, saying Chicago is “out of runway with respect to the public’s patience and beliefs that we care to reform.”
But Waguespack told The Daily Line that the version of the ordinance that faced the committee on April 16 would not have earned enough votes to pass.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to pass it, not let it go down in flames,” the alderman said.
Dueling plans for civilian police oversight. A new name for Lake Shore Drive. Tougher rules for towing companies. A new mega-development coming to the Near North Side. The Chicago City Council is coming out of an extraordinarily busy month of May, and their June agenda could be even more packed as aldermen grapple with how to spend more than $1.8 billion coming from the American Rescue Plan. Join The Daily Line editor Alex Nitkin and reporter Erin Hegarty as they break down the policy details of the latest City Council action and chart out the political battle lines that will guide the next month of legislation. Register here.