Chicago Tribune Sues to Get Police Discipline Files

CHICAGO (CN) – The Chicago Tribune claims in court that the city’s police department routinely delays or denies access to public records about complaints against its officers.

The newspaper’s lawsuit, filed Friday in Cook County Circuit Court, centers on three of 21 Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests the Tribune says it submitted to the Chicago Police Department this year related to police discipline in closed cases.

Tribune reporter Jodi Cohen sent the first request on June 27, 2016, seeking the names of all Chicago police or employees who were suspended from June 27, 2012 on, according to the complaint.

The newspaper says it also sought a description of the violation and discipline, the number of days suspended, and whether it was appealed, successfully or not, among other details.

CPD ultimately “purported to extend its response deadline for five business days on the basis that the requested records were stored off-site,” the lawsuit states.

The department’s FOIA officer emailed Cohen in October, saying he had not heard from the Independent Police Review Authority, the newspaper claims. Cohen reportedly replied that the newspaper sought the police department’s own records.

The police ultimately provided, instead of suspension records, “a spreadsheet containing the name and unit of the accused officers, the complaint log number, the category code and description, and recommended and final discipline,” the lawsuit states.

The Tribune says CPD never explained why it provided incomplete records.

Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards submitted the second FOIA request on Nov. 1, seeking records related to two complaint registers of citizens’ allegations against Chicago police officer Maurice Anderson, according to the newspaper.

Anderson was suspended for 45 days for engaging in an unjustified verbal or physical altercation, making a false report, and other rule violations, according to Police Board records.

CPD denied the Tribune’s request on Nov. 17, “claiming without further explanation that the two disciplinary cases (which commenced in 2008 and 2009) were still being investigated, witnesses were still being sought and interviewed, and that the release of records ‘would obstruct ongoing administrative enforcement proceedings,’” the lawsuit states. (Parentheses in original.)

Yet the cases were closed before Nov. 1, and “the results of the closed investigations have been published online and in official documents,” the Tribune claims.

Cohen submitted a third FOIA request on Nov. 2, seeking unit grievance logs from 2010 to the present.

Over a month later, another CPD FOIA officer allegedly told Cohen “that the sergeant in the [Management Labor Affairs Section] had not responded to [the officer’s] requests for the documents, and the FOIA request was indefinitely delayed,” according to the lawsuit.

“[The] Tribune is aware, from its reporting and FOIA requests to other public bodies, that CPD improperly denies FOIA requests in a routine, perfunctory fashion,” the complaint states. “CPD also routinely violates FOIA’s statutory deadlines, and the Tribune has been obliged to file several lawsuits in recent years simply to obtain compliance with its rights under FOIA.”

The newspaper says a state appeals court “has repeatedly been called to repudiate attempts by CPD (and entities with similar institutional interests) to frustrate public access to the very public records at issue here.” (Parentheses in original.)

“Nonetheless, CPD continues to withhold records pertaining to complaints against and discipline of police officers from the Tribune wholesale and without justification,” the lawsuit states.

The Tribune seeks injunctive relief for CPD’s alleged violation of the Illinois FOIA, as well as attorney’s fees, costs, and civil penalties. It is represented by Natalie Spears with Dentons US in Chicago.

The police department did not return a request for comment emailed Monday.

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