Report Concerning COPA’s Release of Investigative Reports While Under Review by the Superintendent

The Public Safety Section (PS) of the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) releases this report concerning the external release of officer-involved investigative reports by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) in compliance with its obligations under both the Municipal Code of Chicago (MCC) and the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Media reporting from late-December 2017 and January 2018–concerning the publication of and details within COPA’s investigative report on Officer Robert L. Rialmo’s fatal shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones (Rialmo Report)–prompted OIG to review COPA’s release practices while investigative findings and recommendations are under consideration by the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

Government transparency is required to build and maintain public trust. For law enforcement oversight agencies, public transparency is critical to holding law enforcement accountable and maintaining legitimacy with the public. To ensure the longevity of transparency policies, however, such policies should be applied in a manner that avoids the appearance of interfering with an ongoing investigation or disciplinary procedure. Integrity of the accountability process is as important as transparency of the process.

Under Illinois’ FOIA, “[a]ll records in the custody or possession of a public body are presumed to be open to inspections or copying.” 5 ILCS 140/1.2.  While the state statute ensures transparency in governmental records, it also contemplates exemptions to release. Exemptions, however, are to be narrowly construed. This includes Section 7(1)(d)(i) of FOIA, which exempts from release the deliberations of public officials before reaching a final decision.

MCC Chapter 2-78 enables COPA’s investigative work while placing limits on the release and publication of this work. Under MCC § 2-78-100, COPA’s release of its “report[s] summarizing an investigation . . . concerning an incident of alleged police misconduct . . . [are] made available to the public pursuant to Section 2-78-145.” Such reports, under MCC § 2-78-145, shall be posted on the Office’s website and open to public inspection, along with the response of the Superintendent thereto, if any, promptly after, but not before, the process set forth in Section 2-78-130(a) is completed and disciplinary charges, if any, are served on the employees in question.

MCC 2-78-130(a)(iv) clarifies, “A response of the Superintendent that proposes to take no action or action different from that recommended by the Chief Administrator shall not be valid or effective until the process of subsection (a)(iii) of this section is completed.” MCC 2-78-130(a)(iii) requires the Superintendent and the Chief Administrator of COPA to meet and confer when the Superintendent’s response deviates from COPA’s investigative findings and recommendations and enumerates the role of the Police Board in resolving any impasse. Therefore, the investigative and disciplinary process under the MCC requires COPA and the Superintendent to complete their respective procedures before any disposition is finalized and prior to the release of any findings or reports to the public.

The mission of COPA is to conduct its investigations with integrity, transparency, independence, and timeliness. For example, COPA, through Section 6.2 of its Rules and Regulations, adopted in April 2018, contemplates the assertion of FOIA exemptions, in part, “to protect the integrity of an open investigation.”

This PS inquiry, however, determined COPA’s late-December 2017 release of the Rialmo Report risked creating the appearance of an accountability system susceptible to external pressure. While PS recognizes that COPA’s actions were taken in the spirit of robust transparency, PS recommended COPA revisit its release practices to comply with the time allowed under the MCC. PS also recommended COPA adhere to its FOIA obligations in a manner that respects both local and state law, ensures the integrity and procedural fairness of the discipline process, provides public transparency, and enhances the public’s trust.

COPA concurred with PS’ recommendations, concluding “withholding release during the non-concurrence period is essential to preserving the integrity of the accountability process.” To that end, COPA will prospectively assert FOIA’s pre-decisional, deliberative communication exemption, housed at Section 7(1)(f) of FOIA, for requests that fall within the non-concurrence period.

The harmonization of the aforementioned local and state law obligations will ensure transparency and public accountability while also preserving the integrity of the City of Chicago’s investigative and disciplinary processes. PS thanks COPA management and staff for their cooperation and timely response.