SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — In the middle of a national outcry about police power, the Illinois Supreme Court is set to rule Thursday on whether certain Chicago police misconduct records can be routinely destroyed.
The timing on the ruling is purely coincidental. The city says it hasn’t destroyed any police misconduct records since 1991 but that could soon change.
The Chicago Police Union said it has a right to have the bulk of misconduct complaints against officers destroyed every five years. It’s in their union contract.
“Some of them are the more serious allegations: excessive force, civil rights violations, criminal conduct. But you also have uniform violations, attendance issues, you gave issue involving officers working secondary employment, when the rules don’t allow them to have a second job,” the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police said at a court hearing in March.
The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case back in march before shutting down because of COVID-19.
“No documents have been submitted for destruction since 1991,” the attorney said.
Most complaints are destroyed after five years. Excessive force complaints are kept for seven years. But the worst of the worst — things that can get you suspended for more than a year or referred to be the police review board can be kept forever.
“There’s even an exception in there for the city that if they believe there’s a particular pattern involving a particular officer they can come to the lodge and say we’d like to hold onto these records,” Brian Hlavin, FOP lawyer, said.
University of Chicago professor Craig Futterman said the city and the police union have essentially bargained away the public’s right to police accountability behind closed doors.
“It’s unthinkable in this moment,” he said.
If the court sides with the police union on Thursday, the consequences could be severe.
“Is the police department doing what it needs to do to address officers and get rid of them? If you blow up the evidence there’s no way to monitor what they’re doing,” Futterman said.
In 1991, the city said it stopped destroying records because it kept getting sued.
Futterman said he’s particularly worried about what this might mean for torture cases. For example, the allegations against disgraced cop John Burge didn’t come to light until 10 years later. While some records are retained for litigation, many might be destroyed before a case can even be filed.