How the Chicago Police Department fought — and ultimately lost — its FOIA battle to keep cop names from the public

CPD finally complied with The Chicago Reporter’s request for detailed records on police personnel needed to maintain the Settling for Misconduct lawsuits database.

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Photo by Stacey Rupolo

After 14 months of requests, follow-ups, delays, denials, mix-ups, appeals and a legal opinion from the Illinois Attorney General, the Chicago Police Department finally complied with our request to release detailed records on police personnel. 

On July 31, CPD turned over a spreadsheet of 33,280 current and former Chicago police officers dating back to the mid-1940s, including names, badge numbers, dates of service, last rank and assignment and other data points.

The Chicago Reporter requested these records in a May 2018 Freedom of Information Act request. After much delay, CPD responded with incomplete records before ultimately denying the Reporter’s FOIA last summer, setting off a year-long legal dispute.

What’s the big deal?

From a police accountability standpoint, these records are an important piece of the puzzle. Specifically, The Chicago Reporter has since 2016 maintained Settling for Misconduct, a public database of police misconduct lawsuits, relying on the official list of sworn personnel to identify defendants, whose names may be incomplete or misspelled in complaint documents. 

A series of algorithms and manual research draw a connection between individuals named in lawsuits and corresponding records in the police personnel file. This kind of record linkage reveals not only the full identity of the officer in question, but also indicates whether they were named in multiple cases. The Reporter has open-sourced the code for a tool it built for this purpose.

Take, for instance, retired patrol officer Joe Parker, who appears in 16 lawsuits that cost the city more than half a million dollars, mostly alleging false DUI arrests. Readers can visit Parker’s page in the Settling for Misconduct database to find a link to every lawsuit naming him as a defendant. The police department’s personnel list provides a common thread for the database to tie an officer’s lawsuits together in this way.

It’s a small but important part of the larger police accountability picture.

“Until the Chicago Reporter created its database, based on court records and material requested through public records laws, little information about these settlements was publicly available,” reads one finding in a 2017 Justice Department investigation of the Chicago Police Department. “The City’s limited release of information regarding settlements further contributes to public distrust and the perception that the City wishes to keep officer misconduct concealed from public scrutiny.”

The Reporter also shares officer data with other newsrooms researching police accountability issues. Pending an update with 2018 settlements, the database will be shared as part of an agreement with the Chicago Data Collaborative

The Chicago Police Department has a history of attempting to withhold public records pertaining to officers, only to lose subsequent legal challenges. A Cook County judge recently ruled the department must turn over officer photographs following a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent lawsuit by journalist Rob Warden. In 2015, the city lost a FOIA lawsuit that forced the release of dashcam video showing the police murder of teenager Laquan McDonald. And in 2014, the city released officer misconduct complaint records following a lawsuit filed by journalist Jamie Kalven. 

A routine FOIA is anything but

In May of last year, the Reporter filed what has become a pro forma Freedom of Information Act request: names, badge numbers, assignments and dates of service for all officers on file with the Chicago Police Department.

CPD delivered such a list quickly in 2016 and, after some delay, again in 2017. The Reporter requests these lists annually to keep its records up to date, specifically to identify police officers who joined or left the force in recent years.

But in 2018, it was a different story. CPD first offered to provide a list that only included current officers and current badge numbers — omitting crucial information about retired officers or badge number histories. The Reporter stood by its original request but CPD nevertheless delivered the incomplete file, arriving more than a week past the legally required deadline.

The Reporter reiterated its request and waited another seven weeks, occasionally nudging CPD to respond. When it did, the department claimed it had fulfilled the FOIA. 

Reminded that the original request sought a broader data set, and that agencies are required to cite a reason when denying access to records, the police department claimed “a record in the exact format as stated in [the] request does not exist within [Information Services Division], nor is it a record that is maintained as part of the daily course of CPD business.”

The Chicago Reporter appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor. When contacted by the Public Access Counselor, CPD admitted the records did exist but “it was determined that the overall process to satisfy this request was deemed to be manual and task intensive on Department resources at this time.” Specifically, the data was stored in different places and had to be aggregated together using custom database queries.

New case law supports data requests

The Illinois Attorney General’s office has long held that public agencies are required to conduct searches of their databases as needed to respond to FOIA requests. 

More importantly, a 2018 Illinois Appellate Court decision, Hites vs. Waubonsee Community College, clarified that public agencies are in fact required to conduct database queries, even those considered “complex” and time-consuming, in response to a public records request when there is legitimate public interest in the records. 

In order to qualify for an exemption, “the burden on the public body must outweigh the public interest in the information,” the court stated in its opinion, adding that “the FOIA evinces a public policy in favor of disclosure, and exceptions to disclosure are to be read narrowly.” This relatively new case law set a legal precedent in Illinois, with potentially broad implications for electronic records requests. The Public Access Counselor cited Hites in its opinion advising CPD to release the records to the Reporter.

And even though the Public Access Counselor sided with the Reporter on the merits of the case, there was another factor at play: CPD had delayed several weeks in responding to the original FOIA request, even though the law only allows for 10 business days. 

That triggered an important provision in subsection 5 ILCS 140/3(f) of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act: “A public body that requests an extension and subsequently fails to respond to the request may not treat the request as unduly burdensome.” 

CPD blew its chance to deny the request as burdensome because it failed to respond on time — a legal technicality that’s difficult to argue against.

The Public Access Counselor issued its opinion in April, advising CPD to turn over the requested data. But then, radio silence. The police department offered no response to the Reporter’s numerous follow-up inquiries over the next few months.

It pays to be persistent

In June, CPD made one last attempt to claim the requested data didn’t exist. “Please note, historical data is not stored, maintained, or tracked electronically by CPD; therefore, the data provided with this request is the most current data available,” the department claimed, despite much evidence to the contrary. It once again attached an incomplete file including only current police officers and badge numbers.

The Reporter sent CPD back to the drawing board once again, citing the Public Access Counselor’s opinion on the matter and pointing out the obvious fact that CPD had twice already produced the data in recent years.

CPD finally complied with the FOIA request on July 31, more than a year after the initial request.

Hoping to expedite future requests for these records, the Reporter suggested CPD share the custom queries it used to produce the data. 

“We’ll keep it on file to help you all out next time we request this data,” the Reporter offered in a follow-up email.

CPD didn’t respond.