In April 2021, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson and Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg testified before the City Council regarding a proposed ordinance which would enable the Office of Inspector General to create of a public repository of police disciplinary records. That legislation––crafted by Ald. Scott Waguespack in collaboration with police and government transparency reform advocates––was a cost-effective means for effecting transformational change in access to information that courts have ruled to be public.
Unsubstantiated concerns about runaway costs of the legislation delayed a vote until reviewed by the independent Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA). COFA found OIG’s cost estimates to be accurate to the dollar. Late yesterday, a new substitution of that draft ordinance, signed by Ald. Waguespack and Ald. Chris Taliaferro, was publicly released, and today formally announced by the Administration. The newly available version of SO2020-3999 is critically different from the one which was the subject of the City Council hearing in April. Substantial changes to the draft ordinance have the effect of fundamentally altering the scope and scale of the public resource which would result from its enactment, and profoundly limit its transparency value. Specifically:
- The new version of the ordinance limits police disciplinary cases included in the repository to ones in which allegations of misconduct have been sustained, discipline has been recommended, and discipline has been either adjudicated or accepted. The repository would not include, for example, any cases in which accused police officers were exonerated, any cases which were mediated, any cases which were closed—properly or otherwise—without reaching a finding, or any officer-involved shootings for which no one was subject to administrative discipline.
- The new version represents full inclusion of that limited subset of cases going back to 2000. However, it allows only for cases investigated by CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), and their successor agencies. Not included, therefore, would be any cases investigated by their predecessor agencies, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and the Office of Professional Standards (OPS). COPA’s case history goes back only to the date on which it replaced IPRA—September 15, 2017. All OPS cases are likewise excluded, regardless of whether sustained or otherwise, including those investigated while the agency operated under the direction and leadership of then-Chief Administrator Lori Lightfoot.
- The repository contemplated by the new version would, as an initial matter, contain only summary reports of investigation which have been curated and provided by the City’s Department of Law. Tens of thousands of pages of related documents which the City has already made public by releasing them to individual requestors under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) would not be included. Where the version of the ordinance under consideration in April contemplated a phased building out of a historical record comprised very largely of records which have already been released, this new version includes only the forward-going publication of documents produced in response to new FOIA requests.
- The consent decree entered in Illinois v. Chicago already requires the City to publish summary reports of disciplinary investigations, and CPD is reportedly already preparing to publicly post disciplinary records produced in response to new FOIA requests. Both of these are important transparency measures; in light of these measures—already in place or underway—however, the additional value added by the new draft ordinance is significantly diminished from that of its earlier iteration.
“In sum, the new version of SO2020-3999 is a significantly smaller step, in scope and scale, than the one presented to City Council in April,” said Inspector General Ferguson. “The road to reform is a very long one; we need to be leaping by miles, not leaning by inches.” “Moreover,” Deputy Inspector General Witzburg stated, “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. The City owes a transparency debt, and where we have an opportunity to make a transformational down payment, we should not be offering up incremental pocket change.”
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