Illinois Justices Rule Chicago Can’t Destroy Cop Misconduct Records

(CN) — A Chicago police union’s collective-bargaining agreement requirement that the police department destroy all officer disciplinary records after five years is unenforceable because it conflicts with public policy and state records law, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 6-1 decision written by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, the court held that requiring destruction of police disciplinary records conflicts with Illinois law and the state legislature’s “well-defined and dominant” public policy of proper records retention.

Based on Illinois’ Local Records Act that establishes a records retention policy for cities, the state’s high court said it agrees with Chicago “that the statutory framework the General Assembly constructed makes clear that Illinois recognizes a public policy favoring the proper retention of government records.”

The justices also found the destruction of public records may occur only with the approval of a local records commission.

Marie Dillon, policy director for the Better Government Association, a statewide watchdog organization, praised the court’s decision.

“Transparency around police misconduct complaints isn’t just about identifying bad cops and holding them accountable,” Dillon told Courthouse News. “It also promotes confidence in the overwhelming majority of officers who do their jobs honorably and well.”

The timing of the decision is important, she said, amid nationwide protests against police violence.

“It took several years for this case to be resolved, but the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling comes at a particularly important moment. Public faith in police is shaken, and it won’t be restored if disciplinary reports are kept secret,” Dillon said.

The collective-bargaining agreement between the city and Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police requires the destruction of all “disciplinary investigation files, disciplinary history card entries, Independent Police Review Authority and Internal Affairs Division disciplinary records, and any other disciplinary record or summary of such record other than records related to Police Board cases,” after five years from the date of the incident or the date upon which the violation is discovered, whichever is longer.

The union filed a grievance against the city, claiming it was violating the collective-bargaining agreement by failing to destroy the disciplinary records. An arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor and ordered that the city and union work together on a plan for destroying the records.

Chicago sued in Cook County Circuit Court, which ruled in the city’s favor, along with the First District Appellate Court.

In affirming the trial and appellate court decisions, the Illinois Supreme Court said the arbitrator’s decision was in direct conflict with the General Assembly’s public policy and with state records law.

“In light of the plain language of the Local Records Act, we agree with the city that the statutory framework the General Assembly constructed makes clear that Illinois recognizes a public policy favoring the proper retention of government records and that the destruction of public records may occur only after consideration by and with the approval from the [local records commission] in a process established by the commission,” Justice Karmeier wrote.

He added “As such, the procedures laid out in the Local Records Act are an express, legislative restriction on a local government to act in any other way than authorized by the statute.”

Chief Justice Anne Burke and Justices Rita Garman, Mary Jane Thies, P. Scott Neville and Michael Burke joined Karmeier in the majority.

Writing in dissent, Justice Thomas Kilbride said he believes police disciplinary records should not be destroyed, but he said that is not what the arbitrator’s decision required.

“My 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,” Kilbride wrote.

He added, “The arbitrator’s award simply directed the parties to negotiate the method and procedure for the possible future destruction of eligible records in compliance with section 8.4 of the collective bargaining agreement. The arbitrator did not mandate destruction of all records. Indeed, after negotiations, the parties may not reach any agreement on the destruction of any records.”

Kilbride wrote that the arbitrator’s decision “did not violate any ‘well-defined and dominant’ public policy concerning the procedures for the proper retention and destruction of government records.”

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