Illinois Supreme Court rules Chicago police can’t destroy disciplinary records
Protesters gather in Thompson Plaza June 17, 2020, demanding that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot enact the ordinance for an all-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago. The movement against systemic racism and police violence won a victory this week when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Chicago Police cannot destroy past displinary records. | Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

CHICAGO—“No matter whether th’ Constitution follows th’ flag or not, th’ Supreme Court follows th’ election returns,” Chicago Daily News columnist Finley Peter Dunne, speaking as his favorite character, Mr. Dooley, told his friend Hennessy in 1900.

Dunne was talking of the U.S. Supreme Court, but his line could just as easily have applied to the Illinois Supreme Court on June 18, in a case the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police lost. The Constitution wasn’t involved, but human rights, which it is supposed to guarantee to everyone in the U.S., are.

And there’s an “election” of sorts going on in the streets of the U.S., including Chicago, too.

And as a result of this case, the Chicago cops can’t use their contract to cover up their past discipline, the justices decreed, 6-1.

In that context, FOP Lodge 7 took that issue to the state’s High Court. It had won the original arbitrator’s decision that the lodge’s contract with Chicago includes a provision mandating destruction of past disciplinary records five years after the offense.

The city went to court and won reversal at every level, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Illinois public records law and Chicago’s own ordinance on records say that with a limited number of exceptions, public records must be preserved, the justices ruled. And that includes disciplinary records.

“This is important news and a victory for the movement!!! We filed an amicus brief to prevent this and our attorneys argued against this at the Illinois Supreme Court on March 17th,” Black Lives Matter Chicago tweeted.

“This is a significant first step, but much more needs to happen,” the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights added in its own tweet. Specifically, it said, the cops’ contract with the city needs drastic revision in many areas.

The Illinois justices ruled against the FOP amidst the ongoing national uprising against massive, continuing police brutality and killings of unarmed African Americans. One of the most notorious cases was officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of teenager LaQuan McDonald 16 times in the back in October 2014. Van Dyke was later convicted of second-degree murder.

Community anger over Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempts to withhold the tape of McDonald’s murder helped eventually drive Emanuel out of office five years later.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruling is a notable advance in the cause of holding police accountable for such killings and other repression of communities of color. As a recent report from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights pointed out, police nationwide often use state and local immunity laws, union contracts, or both to shield themselves from prosecution for such brutality and killings.

“If laws and collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) impose time limitations on disciplinary action, department leaders should nonetheless accept and investigate complaints. While supervisors may not impose discipline, investigations may shed light on problematic situations,” LCCR said.

It added 14 states have not just CBA protections of officers from discipline, but so-called Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights laws. Maryland and Illinois, however, are considering amending them.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Lloyd Karmeier said that ordinarily an arbitrator’s award could stand, and the old disciplinary records that bother FOP would be destroyed. But there’s a “public policy exception for awards based on collective bargaining agreements,” he noted.

Those arbitrators’ awards—in this case, the pro-FOP decision—could be tossed if the arbiter’s rulings are “repugnant to established norms of public policy.” And destroying the discipline records of Chicago cops is, in so many words, repugnant. The records are needed, Karmeier said, both to provide background for further future discipline against police who illegally harm people and for history.

“Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the state of Illinois (1) that government records are a form of property whose ownership lies with the citizens and with the State of Illinois [and] (2) that ‘those records are to be created, maintained, and administered in support of the rights of those citizens and the operation of the state,’” Karmeier wrote.

“The State Records Act further states, ‘Those records are, with very few exemptions, to be available for the use, benefit, and information of the citizens; and…may not be disposed of without compliance to the regulations in this act.’”

Translating the legal language, that means the Chicago FOP can’t use its contract provision to mandate destruction of cop discipline records. The FOP lodge’s website had no comment on Karmeier’s ruling.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).