After criticism, Ill. state rep drops bill limiting access to police records

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The sponsor of an Illinois House of Representatives bill that would have drastically cut  public access to police records—including in cases of officer misconduct—killed the bill Thursday after searing opposition from civil rights and open government advocates.

The bill, HB0984, introduced Monday by Rep. Anthony DeLuca, would have amended the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to exempt police records related to any pending state or federal criminal case from public records requests.

By Thursday afternoon, the bill had garnered zero witness slips in favor and 45 in opposition from organizations including the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Opponents said this kind of FOIA exemption would thwart public knowledge in cases of excessive use of police force, since victims of such force are often charged with a crime.

“Virtually every incident of police brutality that I’ve studied over many years, virtually every one of those incidents also involved criminal charges, cover charges to justify the brutality,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and founder of the university’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, who also filed a witness slip against the bill. “So the effect of this bill would shield each and every one of those instances of brutality from public scrutiny for potentially years.”

“The bill is not going to be moving forward,” DeLuca told Injustice Watch. He introduced the bill “on behalf of the city of Chicago Heights,” he said, but pulled it after “hearing the concerns of a variety of groups.” DeLuca represents the 80th district, which includes various municipalities southwest of Chicago, including Chicago Heights.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, cited findings from the Department of Justice’s 2017 report on the Chicago Police Department that the CPD “routinely” files charges against citizens who complain as a form of retaliation or intimidation.

“This law would really be an invitation to encourage that behavior, and so the charge itself would then prevent information about the use of force becoming public,” Yohnka said in an interview. “I think when you layer on top of that just the notion that a criminal investigation of any kind can go on for years, that really keeps whatever the underlying behavior or activity might be from becoming public and being addressed.”

Matthew Topic is an attorney at the civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy and expert in Freedom of Information Act law. “Most everyone acting in good faith has to acknowledge that there is still a need for significant police reform and transparency and accountability are a huge part of that and this  bill does the exact opposite of what should be done,” he said. “We need to make it easier to get police records, not harder.”

The bill would also have made it difficult for citizens to access information about crime in their neighborhoods, both Futterman and Topic said.

The bill is unnecessary, Futterman added, given that Illinois’s existing FOIA statute already shields information from view if it might interfere with an ongoing criminal case. “This is a solution that’s in search of a problem,” he said.

According to current law, police records are exempt from FOIA if, among other conditions, their release would “create a substantial likelihood that a person will be deprived of a fair trial of an impartial hearing” or “obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation by the agency that is the recipient of the request.”

“FOIA currently includes several exemptions that allow law enforcement to withhold records in circumstances where release would significantly impair an investigation. This bill would add a broad, unnecessary exemption that would allow law enforcement to withhold records for years, until the conclusion of a prosecution,” wrote Illinois Attorney General Spokesperson Eileen Boyce in an email to Injustice Watch.

DeLuca would not say specifically why authorities from Chicago Heights requested the bill. He only offered that Chicago Heights was having some “concerns with some of the FOIA requests and how it was being handled”; specifically, he said, Chicago Heights “believed that there’s a contradiction in the law from the federal court ruling” compared to “what’s happening on the ground with the FOIA requests that are coming in.”  Chicago Heights’ corporation counsel did not respond to requests for comment.

In January, a report by the Better Government Association (BGA) and WBEZ found there had been 115 police shootings in the Chicago suburbs since 2005, none of which had resulted in the discipline of an officer. The accompanying database, built based on public records, identified four shootings in Chicago Heights; all four victims survived and three had charges filed against them, according to the database. The BGA/WBEZ report has prompted increased scrutiny of suburban policing practices: Last week, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who is also the state’s Democratic candidate for attorney general, called the findings “outrageous” and said he will press to close a loophole that has allowed suburban officers to escape discipline.

Meanwhile, DeLuca said despite the intense criticism, resurrecting the bill is not out of the question.  “Maybe it’s something we’ll look at next year,” he said.