Court: Chicago can preserve old records of police complaints

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Chicago can keep all records of complaints against police officers that are more than five years old, delivering a victory for police reform advocates who say the records are crucial to keeping track of officers accused of brutality and misconduct.

Though the ruling is part of a legal battle that started long before last month’s death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it deals with many of the issues that demonstrators have been raising at the widespread protests over Floyd’s death, racial inequality and police accountability.

The Chicago Police Department has a long been dogged by a reputation for brutality and misconduct, particularly in regard to its treatment of people of color, so keeping the older records of complaints against officers is seen as crucial to being able to monitor the most problematic ones.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, argued that its contract with the city requires that the older complaints be destroyed. But in its 5-1 ruling affirming a previous appellate court ruling, the state Supreme Court determined that a contract cannot supersede state law.

“While the parties are generally free to make their own contracts, this court has long held that when a conflict exists between a contract provision and state laws, as it clearly does in this case, state law prevails,” Chief Justice Anne Burke wrote in the court’s opinion.

The ruling comes with police departments throughout the country facing intense scrutiny since the May 25 death of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer used his knee to pin down Floyd’s neck for several minutes as Floyd begged for air.

The ensuing protests have sent cities and states scrambling to come up with new rules regarding the use of force by police officers, with many banning chokeholds. Just days ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would establish a database that tracks police officers with excessive use-of-force complaints in their records. And New York state lawmakers recently repealed a decades-old law that has kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records secret.

The state Supreme Court ruling is also the latest chapter in a legal battle that started well over a decade ago that led to the creation of a massive database of police misconduct allegations involving Chicago police officers. Called the Citizens Police Data Project, the database when it was launched in 2015 included 56,000 allegations of misconduct against 8,500 officers, making it the largest public database of its kind in the U.S.

The database revealed what critics have said is a widespread and longtime effort to condone and even cover up police misconduct. It showed that only 2% of officers who received misconduct complaints during a five-year period were ever disciplined.

Among the officers who were the subject of numerous complaints but never disciplined was Jason Van Dyke, who was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of death of Laquan McDonald. Before Van Dyke shot the black teenager 16 times, he was the subject of 20 citizen complaints during his 13 years on the force, including eight for the alleged use of excessive force. He wasn’t disciplined over any of them.

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Babwin reported from Chicago.

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