An agreement to make public all completed investigations of Chicago police misconduct will shine a light like never before on a department that has long been dogged by a reputation for brutality and a code of silence, according to a law school professor involved in the litigation that led to the city's decision.
University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman also said Monday that by forcing the department to hand over information on specific cases as well as the names of officers who have been repeatedly accused of misconduct to the public, journalists, attorneys and others who file Freedom of Information Act requests, the department will be forced to investigate patterns of abuse.
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"Because the department has refused to investigate those patterns, it leaves the cops (responsible) thinking they're above the law," he said. "This is going to be a strong incentive to say,'We've got to investigate.'"
The decision, which was announced Sunday by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office, ends a legal fight over the city's long-standing policy of treating police misconduct incidents as personnel matters, and thus exempt under Freedom of Information Act laws. Rather than appeal an appellate court's ruling that the city could not keep the records secret, the city said it would comply with such requests.
Emanuel's office said the policy will help the city build trust between residents and the police force, while Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said it will demonstrate that the department takes seriously allegations of police misconduct.
Releasing the information in response to FOIA requests will likely trigger many requests for information on some of the most infamous scandals in department history, such as now-imprisoned former police commander Jon Burge, who is accused of overseeing the torture of dozens of men to coerce confessions. There may also be requests to see documents related to the investigation of Anthony Abbate, a police officer convicted in the 2007 beating of a female bartender that was captured on video.
Futterman said the public will be able to see recommendations made after internal investigations and not simply the final decision, which is particularly significant in cases such as the Abbate investigation, in which there were widespread suspicions about the department's investigation.
Not only that, but the city must release the names of officers who were at the scenes where alleged abuse occurred.
"That gets to the code of silence (because) you can see one guy who is consistently involved in brutality and he has a partner who was consistently there saying, 'I didn't see anything,"' said Flint Taylor, an attorney who has handled several wrongful conviction cases and whose office worked on the agreement.
The information could be especially valuable to prison inmates who contend they were convicted as a result of a false of coerced confession, he said.
"Before now if you were sitting in prison and ... wanted the background of officers involved in case you would have major problem doing that because the city would resist it and you wouldn't have resources to fight it," said Taylor.
It could also prove a powerful incentive for prosecutors to investigate whether detectives have been accused of misconduct before.
"This can have a dramatic impact on wrongful convictions," he said.