A Tale of Two Cities: Public Access to Police Complaints in Champaign and Urbana

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Backstory: Champaign

Over the course of 2012, several pieces have been published in the Public i and the News Gazette regarding the city’s continued practice of ignoring Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding complaints against the police and its use of tactics to resist compliance with the court rulings.

Whether we look to the FOIA law itself, case law testing the issue (Gekas v. Williamson, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District #4-08-0733, July 20, 2009), or the official statement from the Public Access Counselor (PAC) in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the requirement/expectation is very clear. Complaints, including the details of the specific actions that led up to the complaint and the name(s) of the officer(s), must be made public upon request. Despite this clarity, and a second determination from the PAC confirming that requirement, it appears that Champaign continues its illegal  stonewalling.  It only makes available letters of reprimand, which give no specifics to the actual complaint.

The Experience in Urbana

On February 11, 2012, Brian Dolinar, my colleague on the Public i, filed a FOIA request for “all complaints filed against Urbana police from January 1, 2010 to the present.”  He received a response from Urbana’s Human Relations Officer that included actual copies of the complaints; however, the officers’ names were redacted. As I looked over the information Dolinar had collected, three things caught my eye.

First, of the 24 complaints filed, not one had been deemed valid by the chief; hence, there were no letters of reprimand.  Complainants were informed by letter that they if they were not satisfied, they could take the issue to the Citizen Review Board (CRB). In great part because of pressure from the Urbana Fraternal Order of the Police, that Board is crippled because it has no power to compel the officer to appear to respond to the complaint. Instead, the chief, or deputy chief, appears before the board and repeats the decision that has already been made.  This structure for addressing complaints may actually make it even easier for police officers and chiefs to avoid public accountability and to instead deal with misbehavior informally and off the record.

In a second pattern, unlike the complaints in Champaign, none of those made in Urbana involved excessive use of force. Instead, these complaints included accusations of rudeness, disrespect, unfairness, lying, and in one case, an attempt to dissuade a person from filing a complaint.  The Urbana Police Department’s reputation of being less brutally aggressive than Champaign appears to be validated by the nature of these complaints.

Thirdly, after reading the texts of the complaints, I came away with the impression that the vast majority of narratives had  been written by people of color.

A New FOIA Request

On June 21, I filed another FOIA request to the City of Urbana requesting copies of all complaints against Urbana officers from January 1, 2010 to the present including four specific issues: (1) no redaction of officers’ names; (2) inclusion of the initial complaints in cases that went on to the UCB; (3) copies of all transcribed communications among police officers or other city officials regarding these complaints and their dispositions; and, (4) a breakdown of complainants by race.

Results were mixed. The city did provide information on the 4th point of the request. Of the 24 complaints, 8 were made by African American females, 6 by African American males, 3 by Caucasian females, 1 by a Hispanic female, 1 by an Asian male, and 1 by a Caucasian male.  The race and gender of 3 other complainants was listed as unknown.  This appears to show a disproportionate number of complaints being made by African Americans and women. Is it a coincidence that such individuals are so heavily  underrepresented on the police force?

Counter to the first point in the request, the city continued to redact the names of officers. They did provide a distribution of the number of complaints filed on individual officers, but they masked their identities by using 4-digit numerical codes.  They explained this by saying:

“The City has withheld the identities of police officers on the grounds that revealing the personal identity … subject those officers to potential embarrassment and stigmatization from unfounded and/or unqualified citizen complaints.  While some may argue that the embarrassment caused by such disclosure is minimal, the City believes that the alternate disclosure (four digit code) described above adequately addresses the legitimate public interest ….  As such, the City argues that the marginally increased public interest served by releasing the personal identities (i.e., names) of officers as opposed to the four-digit code is outweighed by those officers’ right to privacy by avoiding the stigmatizing and embarrassing impact of such disclosure.  This is particularly true when such a viable alternative to that disclosure exists.”

There are two problems with this response.  First, a coded distribution inhibits the ability of individuals and the press to track patterns and raise awareness of abuses committed by specific officers. The ability to track such patterns is critical to the safety and wellbeing of individuals and communities. The Illinois Appellate court ruling in Gekas v. Williamson (mentioned above), makes this argument well:

“To monitor the Sangamon County sheriff’s office to ensure it is being conducted in the public interest, citizens might want to see whether the Division is performing a fair and objective investigation of complaints.  They might want to see whether complaints that the Division determined to be unfounded are really unfounded.  Obviously, citizens cannot perform this critique (which section 1 [of the FOIA law] calls nothing less than the people’s “duty”) if so-called “unfounded” complaints are exempt from disclosure for the tautological reason that the public body decided they were unfounded.  Such an exemption would throw a cloak over potential wrongdoing and insulate officials from political accountability.”  

The second problem is that redaction is contrary to the law.  The court has ruled that the files (including the names) of officers against whom complaints have been made must be available to public inspection.

While I was trying to get the city administration to abide by the law, I was also sharing documentation of my pursuit with members of the Urbana City Council.  In the second week of September 2012, I received a call from the Assistant City Attorney. She and the Human Relations and Compliance Officer of the city were requesting that I come in to discuss my FOIA request. At that meeting, I learned that on August 6, 2012, they had received a similar FOIA request from Jeffrey Kelly Lowenstein, a writer for Hoy-Chicago, a Latino publication owned by the Chicago Tribune.  Lowenstein was collaborating with CU-CitizenAccess.org in an investigation on the state of Latinos and Blacks in Central Illinois. Local social justice group, CU Citizens for Peace and Justice had also provided assistance to Lowenstein. (An abbreviated version of the Hoy report appeared in the News-Gazette on October 19). In our meeting, city administrators handed me a copy of the response they had sent to Hoy. This response contained the names of the officers against whom complaints had been made. Success?

As he handed me this documentation, the Human Relations/Compliance Officer told me that he was reserving the right to redact the names of officers in future if he “knew” that the complaints were not valid.  This was unacceptable. Such actions would bring us back to square one on the basic issue.  I have informed members of the city council that I think the council needs to adopt an unambiguous policy affirming that the details of complaints against police officers, and the names of the officers in question, are public information and no redactions will be made in responses to FOIA requests.  I am still waiting for that to happen as we go to press.

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