A Cook County Circuit judge ruled Friday that Chicago Police Department photographs of its officers are public and must be turned over in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Cook County Circuit Judge Sanjay Tailor issued the ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by Injustice Watch co-director and longtime journalist Rob Warden, whose 2016 request for photographs of nine officers was denied by the department.
“For too long, the police department has attempted to keep photographs of police officers under wraps, which is particularly problematic in cases when the officers are accused of misconduct,” said Locke Bowman, who represented Warden and is the executive director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
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“In those cases in particular, it’s fair and appropriate to see a face and know who is.”
The order stated that CPD’s arguments that disclosure of such photographs could threaten the safety and privacy of officers did not outweigh the public’s interest in being able to obtain information about these public officials.
CPD did not dispute that photos are considered public records under Illinois law, but instead argued that the photographs can be exempt from records requests in certain circumstances in which officers’ privacy could be invaded or in which their safety could be at risk.
But Tailor, in his order, cited evidence that the order CPD willingly discloses such information to the public via monthly Facebook posts displaying officers’ names and photographs.
Tailor wrote that CPD cannot selectively disclose records, highlighting that “CPD conceded that it would be reasonable to estimate that thousands of photographs of its police officers are publicly available.”
The ruling stated that the public’s interest, as well as Warden’s interests as a journalist, weigh in favor of disclosing the photographs over constituting an unwarranted invasion of the officers’ privacy.
“While the public has an interest in the safety of law enforcement officers, it also has an interest in ensuring that police officers do not engage in misconduct and the disclosure of police officer photographs serves to check police misconduct,” the ruling states.
In arguments before the ruling was made, assistant corporation counsel Philip Santell contended that if such photographs were to be released, a public database could be created that could be used by criminal offenders to identify undercover police officers as well as to potentially target and even harm them.
Bowman said it would be unreasonable to suspect such a “grand conspiracy.”
The court, too, found fault in such an argument, writing in the order that the CPD’s evidence of such an outcome is “utterly lacking in foundation.”
The court also rejected CPD’s argument that disclosing photographs might jeopardize the work of officers working under cover. It states that such a broad interpretation “would swallow the rule of fullest public access to public records.”
Bowman believes the ruling sets an important precedent in the areas of public records and public safety.
“It’s been sort of an unquestioned article of faith in law enforcement circles, and by extension, in the judiciary, that police officer photographs stay under wraps,” he said. “The reasons that the police typically cite for keeping the photographs under wraps – safety needs to be protected, privacy needs to be protected, this opinion shows that those claims are not supported by any evidence that the city was able to provide.”