Illinois Supreme Court Rules Police Complaint Files Should Be Saved

photo of a police vest
A Chicago police officer pictured on May 22, 2020. On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled complaints of officer misconduct must be saved even though the police union's contract with the city requires destruction of the records after five years. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
photo of a police vest
A Chicago police officer pictured on May 22, 2020. On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled complaints of officer misconduct must be saved even though the police union's contract with the city requires destruction of the records after five years. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Illinois Supreme Court Rules Police Complaint Files Should Be Saved

The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an effort by a Chicago police union to force the destruction of thousands of police complaint records that are more than five years old. The decision was a victory to police accountability advocates who say the records can help identify problematic officers and patterns of abuse.

The opinion came in response to a legal challenge from the police union that represents about 12,000 rank-and-file Chicago cops. The union was seeking to enforce a part of its contract with the city that requires old police complaint files be destroyed.

The city of Chicago had argued that despite the contract language, judge after judge had ruled that the destruction of the records went against the interests of the public and so the files must be preserved.

In Thursday’s decision, which was issued by a seven to one vote, Illinois’ highest court sided with those past rulings, saying the contract language conflicts with an overriding state law that demands the preservation of important public records.

Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote the destruction of the complaint records would violate “an explicit, well-defined, and dominant public policy.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the ruling “entirely the right decision.”

“For way too long, we have not been as transparent as we need to be in this city. We have to have accountability and legitimacy. And that can’t come if we hide from the public documents that underscore what has happened with disciplinary investigations and records in our city,” Lightfoot said.

University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman, who has spent decades in legal battles to make records of police complaints public, said he was “ecstatic” about the decision.

Futterman had warned that destroying the police complaint files would seriously hinder efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department and make it much harder to hold individual officers accountable.

“The Illinois Supreme Court today affirmed a fundamental principle, and that’s the principle that public records belong to and must be maintained for the benefit of the people of Illinois,” Futterman said. “This is the very thing that we’re going to need if we have any hope of addressing and stopping the pattern and practice of civil rights violations [by police] in Chicago.”

And Futterman said if Lightfoot wants the city to be more transparent and accountable, she should use this opportunity to open up public access to complaint files. Futterman said complaints against officers should be posted online shortly after they are received. And he said the city should start using the old complaint files to find patterns of misconduct.

“Still to this day, the city is not doing pattern and practice investigations, is not looking at these patterns of abuse that would stand out to a 5-year-old child,” Futterman said.

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Before the ruling, the union had argued that if the city wanted to preserve the records, it should renegotiate the contract, not ignore it.

Catanzara said it was unfair for officers to be followed forever by long-past allegations, especially ones in which there was insufficient evidence of misconduct.

“If you have a not-sustained complaint, why should that stay in your file forever?” Catanzara said in an interview last week with WBEZ.

Justice Thomas Kilbride was the lone dissenting vote.

He wrote that his “disagreement with the majority has nothing to do with the records that are the subject of this appeal. I firmly believe that police misconduct must be rooted out, and I would vehemently oppose the indiscriminate destruction of police misconduct records.”

However, Kilbride said in his dissenting opinion that an arbitrator had found in favor of the union and that the validity of arbitration awards was “a fundamental principle of labor law.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.