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Watchdog: Court Ruling Could Crack Police Department's 'Code of Silence'

By  Mark Konkol and Quinn Ford | March 12, 2014 8:03am 

CHICAGO — Chicago police can no longer keep internal misconduct investigations under wraps to protect officer privacy, a state appeals court ruled this week.

And that could be just the thing to crack the "code of silence" that a federal jury in 2012 declared was a "persistent widespread custom" of lies and cover-ups within the Chicago Police Department, a top law enforcement watchdog said.

"You want to talk about ending the code of silence, it begins with opening the department to outside scrutiny and public scrutiny, and that's fundamentally what this decision accomplishes," said University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman.

"It's critical that people know about this opinion. … It's a watershed moment that has the potential ability to make the department more open, transparent and accountable to the broader public and ultimately make it a better department as a result."

For decades, the Police Department refused to release misconduct complaint documents, citing an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that prohibited the release of information related to employee discipline.

On Monday, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that certain records — specifically "complaint registers," documents alleging misconduct and "repeater lists" of officers who have faced multiple misconduct allegations — are public documents.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by local activist and journalist Jamie Kalven, whose request in 2009 to review misconduct documents connected to five Chicago police officers had been denied.

"We're very excited," Kalven told DNAinfo Chicago.

"After years and years — decades — of litigation and public advocacy around issues of police reform, the appellate court has held consistently and emphatically that documents bearing on allegations of misconduct are the public's business."

The Chicago police union has "obvious issues" with the ruling, Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden said.

"Why should an officer's personnel file be available to the public? I can't go to any company and ask for someone's personnel file," he said. "We don't like the idea of that at all."

Chicago Law Department spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said the city intends to appeal the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court. She declined further comment.

The ruling, Futterman said, finally gives regular folks — and journalists — an easier way to identify officers who have a history of abuse, keep tabs on how the Police Department investigates those allegations, hold the department accountable and be a catalyst for positive change.

"You're going to save innumerable people from unspeakable abuse that has occurred at the hands of police. You prevent innocent people from going to jail," Futterman said.

"And you restore the reputations of all those good officers who wear the same badge as officers who have abused their power and — as [DNAinfo Chicago] exposed in the Rule 14 series — were protected by a code of silence."

Contributing: Sam Cholke