by Todd Feurer and Dana Kozlov
CHICAGO (CBS) — An effort to create a public database of decades-worth of Chicago Police Department misconduct files stalled on Friday, amid questions from several aldermen about how much the project would cost, clearly frustrating the city’s top watchdog, who criticized “ridiculous numbers that have been put out there.”
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Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she opposes the current plan for Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office to establish a database of closed CPD misconduct files dating back as far as 1994, arguing it would cost tens of millions of dollars.
Although Ferguson did not call out Lightfoot specifically during a public hearing on the proposed database, he was clearly frustrated after several aldermen raised questions about the costs, even after a top deputy in his office told them the project would cost about $2 million over five years.
“There’s some ridiculous numbers that have been put out there previously with no substantiation, no analysis, no information, just wild numbers,” Ferguson said.
When some aldermen asked how the city would pay for the cost of the project, Ferguson said it’s the City Council’s job, not his, to determine how to fund city programs.
“Unfortunately, we can’t tell you where to go to draw that money from, but we seem to be able to find the money for all other things. This seems like an exponential leap forward in the form of a first step that buys some legitimacy and transparency that we so desperately need at this moment,” he said.
Asked by Ald. David Moore (17th) what it would cost the city not to establish the proposed database, Ferguson said the city’s very reputation is at stake.
“The cost of not doing this is twofold, threefold; judgments that stretch back as far as the eye can see, and will continue into the future as far as the eye can see. The expenditure of resources for FOIA infrastructure from a system that’s rooted in non-unification of record systems, and the need to repeat things over and again, and the horrific bleed-out of the reputation of the city of Chicago, and whether or not it cares to actually reform, as it is legally obligated by a consent decree,” Ferguson said. “We’re out of runway. We are out of runway with respect to the public’s patience and beliefs that we care to reform. Transparency is about the only thing we have available to us. The costs here are incalculable and enormous.”
The ordinance proposed by Finance Committee chairman Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) would require Ferguson’s office to make all closed misconduct files dating back to 1994 available on a public database within two years.
After that, the Inspector General’s office would be required to determine the feasibility of publishing closed CPD misconduct files dating back before 1994.
For future CPD misconduct files, the Inspector General’s office would be required to publish them to the database no later than 30 days after a disciplinary investigation is completed.
Deboarah Wirtzburg, deputy inspector general for public safety, said the database would essentially provide easier access to files that have already been deemed to be public records, but that aren’t in any single location for the public to access.
At the beginning of a joint meeting of the City Council Finance and Public Safety committees on Friday, Waguespack said he was prepared to call for a vote on the plan.
But after a lengthy debate, Waguespack agreed to hold it in committee to get more answers from the Chicago Police Department and the city’s Law Department about their objections to the plan, as well as their own estimates for what the project would cost.
Waguespack said CPD had yet to respond to his request for a cost estimate, and the city’s top lawyer told him the project would cost “tens of millions.” He also made it clear he wasn’t getting other answers he wanted from City Hall.
“I will attempt again to get information on record, as lawyers should do or the Police Department should do – but won’t – about specific responses as to what the cost is, or what the issues that they have are,” Waguespack said. “We’re going to hold this item in the committee, but I expect a lot more our of our Department of Law, the Police Department,”
Several aldermen said they want their own financial adviser, the Council Office of Financial Analysis, to provide a cost estimate for the project, which Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who chairs the Budget Committee, said should be ready next week.
Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute, who has been fighting for police accountability and transparency for more than a decade, said he believes the proposed database would be a national model for transparency.
“This would dramatically enlarge our ability to identify and analyze patterns of police misconduct,” he said. “At this watershed moment in American life, as we reckon with a history of racial disparities in law enforcement, it’s critically important to create the conditions for full public acknowledgment of that history. The proposed ordinance is a realistic, cost-effective blueprint for doing that.”
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Years ago, after a court battle over CPD misconduct records, the Invisible Institute created a public database that now houses 250,000 allegations of police misconduct, and disciplinary histories of more than 23,000 CPD officers.
“The public availability of this information has informed the police accountability efforts both within government and civil society in recent years. Against that background, the city council is now poised to take the next major step in making transparency a vital principle of governance in Chicago,” Kalven said.
The City Council’s push for a public CPD misconduct database stems from the city’s effort to settle a lawsuit filed by Charles Green, who was convicted in a 1985 quadruple homicide, but claims he was wrongfully convicted.
Green sued the city after it failed to respond to his FOIA request for decades of police misconduct records in order to prove his innocence. On March 31, an appeals court backed city attorneys and ruled the city didn’t have to hand over records from before 2011.
“It’s just another chapter in the shameful way the city has treated Charles Green, who’s done everything by the book,” said his attorney, Jared Kosoglad.
Green’s case might be in limbo, but it sparked the push for a public CPD misconduct database. In July, the city offered him $500,000 to drop his lawsuit, which would have kept those misconduct records sealed permanently. Green was ready to accept the money, but many aldermen argued that would quash transparency and pushed to find a way to release those records anyway.
This ordinance is it, but concerns about cost have now further delayed a committee vote.
Meanwhile, Green never got his case files or money-
“They city refused to discuss the settlement after July. That alone raises red flags,” Kosoglad said.
For now, those misconduct records remain sealed.
“It’s an abdication of their responsibility. They’re pretending to be transparent in very select instances,” Kosoglad said.
However, several aldermen suggested the City Council needs to take more time before voting on the database, suggesting Friday’s hearing was rushed, even though Waguespack introduced his plan months ago.
“I think there’s more that I’d like to learn about this. I have some questions, and I just want to make sure that as we move this forward, we do it in a thoughtful manner,” “I have a lot more that I’d like to learn on this,” said Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th)
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), one of the City Council’s most conservative members, said he was “baffled” by the whole process so far.
“I can’t remotely believe we’re considering possibly voting on this today. I mean, this cannot be voted on today,” he said.
That prompted a frustrated response from Waguespack, who noted that the files that would go into the database are already public records.
“This thing has been on the table for seven months. It’s been on the table for a decade,” he said. “All this information is already out there, available. There’s nothing new about the information.”
Waguespack did not set a specific date for a future hearing on the database proposal, but vowed to have another hearing on the matter.
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As for Green’s lawsuit, Kosoglad said after the appeals court ruling against his client, he’s looking at two options: restarting the litigation, or taking the case to the Illinois Supreme Court. He said he’s not going away.