Champaign: the City Above the Law

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Take one: an individual asserts his rights under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act

In 2009, dentist G. Mark Gekas lodged a complaint with the Sangamon County sheriff’s office that he had been brutally mistreated by deputy sheriff John Gillette during a traffic stop. The internal-affairs branch of the sheriff’s office investigated and determined that the deputy had done nothing wrong. Dr. Gekas was not satisfied with that determination, so he filed a freedom of information request (FOIA) asking the sheriff to provide him with a copy of all the complaints that had been previously filed by citizens against that deputy.  He also asked for a copy of all the records pertinent to these complaints.  The sheriff reused to comply, stating that the records were in the deputy’s personnel file and were thus, confidential. Pressing forward, Dr. Gekas made an administrative appeal, and was again denied. He moved up the chain to the circuit court.  That court did look at the deputy’s files and found that there were twenty-seven complaints against him; however, the judge ruled that Dr. Gekas could have access to only four of these– either because the deputy had been cleared of some by the internal unit, or because the others were not similar to Dr. Gekas’s complaint. Continuing his fight, Dr. Gekas went to the Fourth District Appellate Court.  That court ruled in favor of Dr, Gekas, stating that:

Insomuch as the 23 files document investigations of alleged wrongdoing by Deputy Gillette in the course of his public duties, they are not his personal information, and the disclosure of those files would not invade his personal privacy…We reverse the part of the judgment allowing defendant to withhold the file pertaining to plaintiff’s allegations against Gilette.  We also remand this case with the following directions.  Of the remaining [the 23] files, the court shall identify, and order defendant [the sheriff] to provide to plaintiff [Gekas], all files that relate to allegations of wrongdoing by Gillette in the performance of his duties as deputy sheriff.

Take two: CU Citizens for Peace and Justice and the News-Gazette demand their rights to information

In March of 2010, the City of Champaign was set to begin collective bargaining sessions with the Fraternal Order of the Police. Prior to these sessions, CU Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ)  presented three demands to the City: 1, that the city adopt a residency requirement for police officers; 2, that officers be tested for drug and alcohol use in cases where they discharge their weapon or inflict great bodily harm on someone; and 3, that “all citizen complaints, whether founded or unfounded, will be placed in the officer’s personnel file and be accessible to the public…[and] shall not be removed from the officer’s employee file.”  The latter was important because written reprimands are expunged from the files after two years and cannot be referenced or used in further disciplinary actions.

None of CUCPJ’s demands was enacted.  On March 31, 2010, the News-Gazette, filed a Freedom of Information request asking for names of police officers against whom citizens have filed complaints during the past five years. When adult citizens are arrested and charged, their names are made public even before they are found guilty or innocent.  Why should there be a double-standard? The city released dates and types of abuses charged against officers, but redacted the names.  The Gazette then took the matter to the state ‘s Public Access Counselor in the Attorney General’s Office.  It took until March 2011 for the counselor to finish his review.  He ruled that the city did not prove that it had a legal basis to redact the names and that they should be released.  The legal office for the city  disagreed with the decision and refused to obey.  The Gazette refiled the request to no effect as yet. (NG, June 29, 2011, Sec. B, 29, p. 1). Then, in two separate settings in June and July 2011, Sangamon County circuit judge Patrick Kelley, ruled that the records must be turned over.

Take three: a response disdainful of law and the citizenry

So here we have three rulings in state district court, a ruling in a state appellate court, and a finding by the Attorney General’s office that complaints of abuse or brutality on the part of police officers-names included, are to be made public. This would allow people to assess whether the abuse they feel they have suffered is part of a pattern of abuse by an individual officer, and if such abuse is routinely tolerated by a police department.  That is critically valuable information; it would allow communities to get rid of so-called “bad apples,” reveal whether or not there is wide-spread toleration of abuse in a department, and build public confidence in the integrity of the department and its commitments to respecting the rights of the people it is supposed to protect.

The city continues to assert that what we are dealing with here is “unsettled law.”  I would argue that what we are dealing with is a city that is showing contempt for the law; a city that rigorously enforces the letter of the law  when it comes to citizens (especially African Americans ones), but refuses to obey higher administrative and court rulings at its discretion.

If it ever really was, it is certainly no longer a matter of bargaining with the police union.  It’s the law. If Champaign were a nation-state, we would call such arbitrariness in the respect for law tyranny.  It is especially disgraceful that this is permitted to happen with at least two lawyers sitting on the City Council.  That council, directly responsible to the citizenry,  should oblige the city attorney and city manager to at least obey the law as it is presently understood by the courts and the state from which the city derives its police powers.


This entry was posted in Human Rights, Policing. Bookmark the permalink.