Springfield: Stop the Destruction of Police Misconduct Records

Chicago paid out $642 million for cases of police misconduct from 2004 through 2015. More recently, in April 2016, the city authorized a $6.5 million payout for two cases of egregious police misconduct.

Now, more than ever, the public is scrutinizing the Chicago Police Department, or CPD. But Chicagoans and watchdogs face a major hurdle when it comes to keeping an eye on bad actors within the force - that's because the Chicago police contract mandates that CPD destroy disciplinary records. What's more, the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, actually filed a lawsuit in 2014 to prevent the release of records more than four years old and destroy decades' worth of records, arguing CPD officers would experience "public humiliation and loss of prestige in their employment" if the information came out.

The Illinois General Assembly had the opportunity to consider four bills during its spring session that would have banned the destruction of disciplinary records. Two of those bills, House Bill 6266 and Senate Bill 2233, showed some movement this legislative session, and there's still a chance the issue could come up for a vote before session ends May 31 if politicians want it to.

Records are crucial in preserving officer integrity

Already, the contract between the FOP and CPD requires the department to destroy disciplinary files within five or seven years, even though an officer may still be on the job and displaying a pattern of misconduct during that time. In spite of this provision, CPD has kept records dating back to 1967.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into CPD following first-degree murder charges against Officer Jason Van Dyke for shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the 2014 FOP lawsuit to destroy records stalled. Van Dyke was accused of misconduct 20 times, according to data from the Citizens Police Data Project, or CPDP. One brutality complaint alone cost the city $530,000 in damages and legal fees, according to city data dating back to 2011. Despite this, none of the complaints against Van Dyke resulted in disciplinary action.

According to available data, however, most Chicago police are good actors, doing difficult work in a challenging climate. Officers with more than 10 complaints account for just 10 percent of the Chicago police force, according to CPDP data published by CBS Chicago. And that 10 percent of officers accrued 30 percent of all complaints, with an average nearly four times higher than the number of complaints per officer throughout the rest of the force.

Yet it's nearly impossible to fire that small contingent of bad actors from the city's police force.

Why?

It all goes back to the CPD contract.

The CPD contract protects bad cops at the expense of the public - and good officers

The CPD contract's mandated destruction of disciplinary records essentially tells leadership to disregard wrongdoing after that misconduct reaches its contractual expiration date. But identifying patterns of misconduct is crucial in preventing erosion of community trust, as well as wrongdoing that ends in grievous harm and million-dollar settlements.

That's not the only part of the contract that gets in the way of protecting the public and allowing officials to remove bad officers from the force. The contract also allows for:

  • Delays in investigations: Officers can get up to a 48-hour delay once a disciplinary interview is requested (for non-shooting complaints).
  • Notice regarding interviews: The manner of interview is highly regulated, and officers are informed of the procedure and investigators ahead of time.
  • Transcripts of previous statements: Officers receive copies of their previous statements before being re-interviewed.
  • False statements and video evidence: It's nearly impossible for officers to be found guilty of a false statement violation; if an officer makes a misstep, he's allowed to see video footage and fix his statement accordingly.
  • Polygraph protections: Officers can refuse polygraphs and get access to interview questions prior to taking a polygraph exam.

These examples show how the contract rigs investigations to protect officers from discipline. Provisions such as these stand in the way of police accountability and effective investigation of officers. CPDP data show that 95 percent of the 56,384 allegations available from 1967 to present were found "unsustained."

It's time to reform the CPD contract

CPD's current contract expires in 2017 - an excellent opportunity to adopt a better contract that removes discipline from bargaining and enhances transparency.

More than anything, Chicago needs reforms to restore faith in its police force. In the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, tensions between the police and the community are strained; and the public is especially skeptical of the union, given that the FOP hired Van Dyke after he was stripped of his police powers.

Even before contract negotiations begin, state lawmakers have an incredible opportunity to prevent the destruction of vital police misconduct records.

Illinois General Assembly members can pass HB 6266 and SB 2233, both of which would prevent the destruction of invaluable police records going forward.

After that, next steps should focus on how the contract handles police discipline. Chicago would be wise to follow New York's lead - discipline and disciplinary procedures cannot be part of collective bargaining in New York City, Westchester and Rockland counties, and for the New York State Police.

Without reform, Chicago's police force can't regain the public's trust - and taxpayers will continue to be on the hook for the bad behavior of the officers the contract protects from consequences.