Illustration by Kahari Black

Op-Ed: To Shape the Future of Policing, We Must Preserve Its History

The Fraternal Order of Police threatens to destroy nearly all of Chicago’s police misconduct records

Few, if any, news outlets are reporting on it—understandably, given the pandemic—but hundreds of thousands of records detailing allegations of police misconduct by current and former Chicago police officers are at risk of being destroyed. On March 17, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments in FOP v. City of Chicago. The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the majority of Chicago Police officers, argued that the City of Chicago must destroy police misconduct records older than five to seven years. The current FOP contract requires that the City destroy them, but the City hasn’t yet—in part because the destruction process is potentially illegal, in part because the City may find itself liable for destroying evidence in civil rights and wrongful conviction cases, and in part because the Department of Justice needed the records to investigate the Chicago Police Department after the Laquan McDonald scandal.

Now, the police union claims, the DOJ investigation is over, so there is no longer a strong public policy reason to pause the record destruction. They argue that police complaint records are wide-ranging, from the most “mundane” (i.e., an officer’s uniform infraction) to the most extreme (i.e., a police shooting), and that low-level complaints should not follow officers through their careers. Complaints deemed “serious” in negotiations, including those taken to the Chicago Police Board (the body that decides whether to fire an officer) would be preserved under the union proposal.

We cannot let the police union win in destroying any of its misconduct history. The public need for maintaining these complaint records is strong as it has ever been. 

First, the consent decree—run by an independent monitoring team, appointed by a federal judge—is new and fledgling. To ensure compliance with the reforms of the consent decree, and continue to make demands within it, official complaint records must be preserved well into the future. We must understand past patterns and practices of misconduct to avoid the same abuses—the retention of records is crucial for the success of this reform.

Second, so-called “low-level” complaints can show a pattern that builds toward greater abuse. Jason Van Dyke had an undisciplined complaint history of verbal abuse—like calling Black people racial slurs on multiple occasions—in the years prior to murdering Laquan McDonald. And when Van Dyke participated in the coverup of the murder? The investigation into the coverup was coded as a low-level Operations & Personnel Violation in data released to the Invisible Institute by the city. That should not be erased. 

The FOP argues that the City could negotiate for “serious” categories of complaints, such as use of force, to be retained. However, given the miscategorization of complaints that can obscure the worst harms in a narrative, this is far from comforting. Hundreds of “mundane” violations, categorized by investigators as personnel violations or conduct unbecoming, have reports of sexual misconduct or violence buried within the summaries of the incident. Our colleagues have read hundreds of complaints where the categorization entirely obscures abuse. 

For example, from a complaint narrative, deemed “Operation & Personnel Violation: Miscellaneous”: Officer Brian Treacy was on duty when he asked the complainant, a sex worker, if she wanted a ride and how much she charged to “hang out.” The complainant stated that she charged a hundred dollars per hour. She stated “If you’re not the police, then why don’t you touch me?” After she said this, the victim alleged that Treacy put his hand under her shirt, touched her bare left breast, and put his hand into her pants on her vagina. After he assaulted her, she was arrested and taken into custody, where she made a complaint against Treacy. 

There is no indication in the category that sexual assault was investigated, or even occurred, in this complaint. If the FOP has its way, those records would be destroyed.

Third, the FOP’s reassurance that serious complaints that make it to the Chicago Police Board—the body which hears the most severe disciplinary cases—will be preserved is meaningless. Some of the most egregious incidents of misconduct in the city’s history did not make it to the police board. Sgt. Ronald Watts or Detective Reynaldo Guevara never went before the police board—and people have been exonerated based on bad policing from these officers, known for extortion, selling and buying drugs, and forcing confessions. Since 2010, just 252 cases have gone before the police board. 

Dante Servin, the detective that shot and killed Rekia Boyd, never had his day before the police board, because he resigned the day before his hearing. If the police union agreement is enforced, Servin’s complaint history, including the CR associated with the killing of Rekia Boyd, would be destroyed.

If the FOP succeeds in getting the City to destroy hundreds of thousands of complaints, going back to 1967, it will be the most expansive police coverup of all time. The City’s collection of complaint records is the only human rights archive that is routinely deemed credible when the Department of Justice investigates, a police officer claims wrongdoing by another, or a wrongful conviction claim comes forth in court. Our independent archive (cpdp.co) serves as a check on the data that the government makes available, but alone it is not enough. 

We, the public, need the City of Chicago to retain these records for the sake of future investigations, exonerations, and reforms. “Accountability” is not a single moment, after which the past can be forgotten. Accountability is evolving, iterative, and demands constant and ongoing consideration of history. 

To this end, the City can hold its ground on two fronts: First, prevent the clause that calls for document destruction from being included in its next collective bargaining agreement with the police unions. The negotiation is ongoing in private, and the public depends on Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the City’s attorney, and an arbitrator to protect the public interest. 2) Quickly seize the rare opportunity presented by a ruling in a separate case that came last month, in which a judge ordered the City to produce all of the supporting records for police complaints from 1967–2015. The City must maintain Freedom of Information services during the ongoing shutdown; these months are our chance to preserve those records in case the state Supreme Court issues an unfavorable ruling.

When we emerge from this all-consuming public health crisis, we will have the freshest opportunity of our lifetime to reconstitute policing and other public institutions. To seize that moment, we must have human rights documentation, so we can prevent repeating the past. 

Additional reporting by Asha Futterman

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Maira Khwaja and Emma Perez work for the Invisible Institute, a journalism production company on the South Side of Chicago. The Invisible Institute’s work coheres around a central principle: we as citizens have co-responsibility with the government for maintaining respect for human rights and, when abuses occur, for demanding redress. The Invisible Institute created the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), a tool for holding police accountable to the public they serve. CPDP takes government records of police interactions with the public—records that would otherwise be buried in internal databases—and opens them up to make the data useful to the public.

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