The Chicago Reporter won a key legal determination in a nearly year-long pursuit of Chicago police officer records.
The Reporter routinely requests lists of sworn officers from the Chicago Police Department as part of its research into police accountability issues.
In 2018, CPD denied one of these Freedom of Information Act requests. But on appeal, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office found the denial “improper” and advised the police department to turn over the records.
“This office requests that CPD issue a revised response to [the Reporter’s] requests which accounts for all the data fields [it] requested,” Christopher Boggs, the supervising attorney in the Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau, wrote in an April 24 opinion.
The Reporter collects information on Chicago police officers past and present, including their names, badge numbers and dates of service, primarily to identify respondents named in civil rights lawsuits filed against the police department. These lawsuits, along with the named police officers, are published in the Reporter’s database, Settling for Misconduct. The Reporter also shares these records with other newsrooms conducting similar research.
The Reporter obtained police officer lists from CPD via FOIA requests in 2016 and again in 2017. In 2018, after much delay, CPD denied the request without citing a reason. When reminded that public agencies are required to cite an exemption, the department claimed “a record in the exact format as stated in [the] request does not exist.”
When the Reporter appealed the decision to the Attorney General, CPD acknowledged that the requested records exist but that it would be “unduly burdensome” to produce them.
In its appeal, the Reporter relied on several legal arguments against the unduly burdensome exemption — specifically 5 ILCS 140/3(g) of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act — and documented that CPD had produced the records in the past. We also raised the prevailing legal interpretation in Illinois that public agencies are required to query their databases in response to Freedom of Information requests.
“In other words, although a public body is not required to create new records in order to comply with FOIA, a public body may need to create and apply a new query in order to provide a proper response to a FOIA request seeking data maintained in disparate data sources,” Boggs wrote. “Here, because [the] request sought information that CPD appears to maintain in its databases and because CPD did not demonstrate that creating the query that would compile the requested information would constitute creating a new record for purposes of FOIA, this office concludes that CPD improperly responded to [the] request.”
Finally, the appeal pointed out CPD had missed an important deadline in responding the Reporter’s request. The police department provided a partial response 16 business days after receiving the request, even though it was only legally entitled to 10 business days. Because it missed that deadline, the department waived its ability to treat the request as unduly burdensome, per 5 ILCS 140/3(f).
“Therefore, CPD’ s June 11, 2018, response was untimely; and CPD waived the opportunity to deny [the] request as unduly burdensome,” the decision states.
One week after the Attorney General informed CPD of its decision, the Reporter has yet to receive any records. CPD did not immediately respond to a May 1 follow-up inquiry from the Reporter.
On May 17, the Reporter’s FOIA request to CPD will be one year old. The law typically allows only 10 business days for a response.