As a candidate for Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot called on the city to release the records from its investigation into how the Police Department handled Officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald.
That investigation was run by Joseph Ferguson, the city’s inspector general, who has warned that “the full story” about the shooting is still not known. For months, Ferguson has been pushing the city to release the records.
Candidate Lightfoot agreed.
“It’s absolutely critical,” she told WBEZ in March, that they “be fully released in their entirety, including all the attachments and the evidence.”
Now Lightfoot is mayor. And her administration is denying open-records requests for the material, citing legal restrictions but pledging to try and get those restrictions removed.
“She agrees that documents implicating a matter of significant public policy, such as these, should be made available in a timely manner and in accordance with the law,” a written statement from Lightfoot’s office says.
“The mayor’s intention to release them has not wavered,” the statement says. “She has directed her team to work as quickly as possible to bring forward changes to the law that can allow for greater transparency on high-profile cases like this one, and whenever the public has a right to know.”
Ferguson’s investigation, a probe that lasted much of 2016, led him to recommend dismissal of 11 police officers, including Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy and Deputy Chief David McNaughton.
This past February, Ferguson said it was time for the city to release the records, which total thousands of pages, because Van Dyke had been sent to prison for the 2014 shooting and because three officers charged criminally with covering up for him had been acquitted.
Ferguson called his probe “a matter of high public interest and importance.”
He said a Chicago municipal code that bars his office from releasing investigation records does not apply to the Police Department, which possesses the material.
Interviewed by WBEZ in March, Lightfoot made a promise.
“There’s no good-faith justification for keeping those reports secret at this point,” the mayoral candidate said. “It needs to come out to the light. And, if I get elected mayor, that’s going to be a priority to make sure that happens.”
Last week, in response to WBEZ requests for the records under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, Lightfoot’s office sent a list of legal reasons for keeping them secret. Those reasons include laws at both the municipal and state levels that, according to some legal experts, would not bar the city from releasing the material.
A taller barrier is a gag order issued by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan more than three years ago for Van Dyke’s murder case.
That order bars law enforcement agencies from releasing “any purported extrajudicial statement of either the defendant or witnesses relating to this case.”
At a May 23 hearing about the gag order, Gaughan refused requests by Chicago-area news outlets including WBEZ to modify or vacate it.
The Lightfoot administration, represented at the hearing by an assistant corporation counsel, took no position on whether the gag order should be vacated.
News outlets are planning to ask an Illinois appeals court to throw out the order.
Ferguson’s office, meantime, says his position on the records has not changed.
“They should be released,” Ferguson said in a written statement. “The sooner the better.”