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Local police departments continue to deny open records requests

By Dan Petrella'” Complaints filed by white residents with the Champaign Police Department were three times more likely to be upheld than those filed by black residents, an analysis of police records from 2006 to 2008 shows.

Police officials say those numbers do not raise any red flags. Nevertheless, the police department persists in refusing to open most records of the complaints in apparent violation of a 2009 Illinois Appellate Court ruling. The court ruled that the public should have access to records of complaint against police officers, whether the complaints were founded or unfounded. 

Questions arose about racial disparity in the way Champaign treated complaints against police officers last fall after a white officer fatally shot a black teenager during a struggle outside a home in north Champaign. In the ensuing protests and debates over the shooting, residents called for more access to records of complaints accusing officers of using excessive force or other misconduct. 

Champaign police do produce an annual summary for the City Council that analyzes complaints filed with the department. The report includes information such as the type of misconduct alleged in each complaint and the race and sex of the individual making the complaint, but no other specific details about individual complaints.  

The Urbana Police Department also refuses to release records of complaints against its officers, and its denial also appears to ignore the Appellate Court ruling.

Other departments are more open.

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The process

The critics

The numbers

The tensions

The proposals

 

 


Police departments in Bloomington and Normal released hundreds or thousands of pages of documents detailing complaints filed against their officers and the results of their internal investigations. They did withhold witnesses' statements, the identities of those who made the complaints and some other information.

But in response to a reporter's request for more than 100 complaints filed in the past five years, the Champaign police released just nine letters in which officers were reprimanded for being discourteous to residents.

In its denial of the records request, Champaign police said the complaints themselves were withheld to protect the privacy of the individuals who filed them.

The department refused to release the investigation reports, citing a legal exemption from disclosing documents that are "preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.'

Mark LaMet, director of investigations for the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based watchdog group, said there is "no conceivable reason' that police departments should refuse to release records of complaints against their officers. 

"Otherwise, there's no way to scrutinize those police agencies,' he said. "We believe that cops have the hardest government jobs, short of the Army. But that doesn't absolve them' from public scrutiny.

Deputy Chief Holly Nearing, who oversees Champaign's professional standards division, said deciding whether or not to release the complaints is a balancing act.

She said that although police officers are public employees, their reputations could be damaged if false complaints were made public. Releasing the investigation reports in which officers are cleared of wrongdoing wouldn't necessarily offset the potential damage, she said.

Nearing said there is a danger that people will "cherry-pick the information they're interested in '¦ and ignore the information that's favorable to the officers.' 

LaMet said this does not excuse the department from releasing the records. 

"I don't think they have a right to protect police officers' reputations,' he said. "That's nowhere in their mandate.'

After reviewing Champaign's denial of the records request at the city's behest, the public access counselor in the Illinois attorney general's office determined that the investigation reports generated during the complaint process are exempt from disclosure.
 
In a letter to the city dated June 14, public access counselor Cara Smith wrote that the reports "contain interview notes and opinions by police officers concerning citizen complaints against police officers.'
 
"These notes express opinions gathered to formulate an action by the City and fall within the confines of the preliminary draft exemption,' she concluded.
 
The letter does not address the city's refusal to release the original complaint forms filed by residents. The attorney general's office has not completed its review of Urbana's denial.

The pressure for Champaign to release complaints has increased in recent weeks as the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, with the backing of more than a dozen other community groups, is urging the City Council to push for language in a new police contract, to be negotiated this summer, that would guarantee public access to the complaints.

And at a community forum held in March in response to the October shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington, residents repeatedly called on the Police Department to be more open in its operations.

The process

Champaign's complaint process begins when a person who feels he or she has observed or been the victim of police misconduct reports the incident to the department. The person making the complaint must sign a document, which states that filing a false complaint could result in criminal charges or civil liability. 

The department then investigates the claim, a process that requires the person who filed the complaint to submit to an interview with the investigating officer and supply police with any requested witnesses, evidence or documentation. Anyone who files a complaint alleging excessive force must agree to release to police records of any related medical treatment.

After the investigation is complete, a written report is given to the police chief, who decides whether or not the complaint is valid and determines what discipline, if any, the officer in question should receive. 

Either way, the person who made the complaint is notified of the results of the investigation in writing. If the person disagrees with the chief's decision, he or she can request that the city manager review the case.

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The critics

Critics say the process deters people from filing complaints because many don't believe their allegations will be evaluated fairly. 

The Rev. Jerome Chambers, president of the Champaign County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said many people in Champaign's black community don't trust the complaint process.

"There is a fear among residents of reprisal '¦ being picked out to be picked on,' he said. 

Chambers said he believes the city should institute a civilian review board for police complaints, similar to the one Urbana created in 2007. 

Patrcia Avery heads the Champaign-Urbana Area Project, a group that helps facilitate grassroots efforts in the local black community. She said she often gets calls from young people who feel they've been mistreated by police. 

"People that have contacted my office, and me personally, they have felt that their voices are better heard when they come to an organization like mine,' Avery said. "What they attempt to do is bring their complaint to someone they think has the ear of the department.' 

In these situations, Avery contacts the Police Department and tries to serve as a mediator between the two parties. Mediation lets those who have problems with a police officer's actions feel as though they've been heard, unlike the current complaint process, she said.

 "It's like the system has failed them so much, they don't even look for it to work for them,' she said.



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The numbers

From 2006 through 2008, the most recent year for which the department has released figures, black residents filed more than 60 percent of the complaints lodged against police, according to department records. A little more than 15 percent of Champaign residents are black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. 

Only six of Champaign's 125 police officers are black '“ slightly less than 5 percent of the entire police force.  In all, less than 10 percent of the department's officers are minorities. 

During the three-year period, a total of 74 complaints about officers were filed with the department, containing 144 individual allegations of misconduct. One-quarter of those allegations involved the use of excessive force. About 19 percent of all allegations were sustained, according to a report issued to the City Council last year.  

But allegations made by black residents were less likely to be sustained than those made by whites. While the department sustained nearly 35 percent of allegations made by white residents, only 10 percent of allegations by black residents were sustained, according to department figures. 

Nearing said the department evaluates each allegation on its own merits and doesn't believe the discrepancy raises any red flags due to the "small sample size' of complaints. 

"It has not been pointed out to us that it's statistically significant,' she said. 

When Champaign Officer Daniel Norbits shot 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington Oct. 9 while responding to what was reported as a burglary in progress, it cast a public spotlight on what many describe as longstanding tensions between police and residents of the predominantly black neighborhoods on the city's north side. 

The city announced an unpaid 30-day suspension for Norbits in late last April, saying the 15-year veteran didn't intend to fire but violated department policy by not controlling his gun.  

The announcement came amid a tense week for race relations in the city.


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The tensions

At that week's City Council meeting, several residents, including Chambers and Avery, delivered scathing criticisms of Mayor Jerry Schweighart for comments he made a few days earlier at a tea party event in West Side Park. In remarks that were videotaped and posted on YouTube, the mayor questioned President Obama's citizenship and eligibility for the presidency. 

Many of those who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting said the mayor's comments undermined ongoing efforts to restore the black community's faith in the Police Department and the city in the aftermath of Carrington's death. 

After the shooting, City Manager Steve Carter announced six initiatives aimed at improving the department's relationship with the black community. 

One of the initiatives was a March 15 community forum that drew an overflow crowd to the banquet room at Hawthorne Suites in Champaign. Others included creating a community orientation program for new officers; following through on changes to the department's use of force policy, which were instituted just days before the Carrington shooting; and recruiting more minority and female officers. 

The city is also in the midst of reviewing the process for handling citizens' complaints, another of the initiatives. One option under consideration is mediation. Urbana has offered this choice in its complaint process since instituting a civilian review board in 2007, but it has never been used. 

Avery said she feels her informal mediation efforts have been effective. 

"The complaint process is flawed,' she said. "It doesn't work, and mediation does.'


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The proposals

The CU Citizens for Peace and Justice has proposed its own initiatives for improving relations. The group has made three proposals it wants the city to include in the next contract with its police officers. The current contract expires June 30. 

The first proposal is reintroducing a residency requirement for all Champaign police officers, something the City Council did away with in the 1970s. The group also wants mandatory drug and alcohol testing for officers who are involved in incidents involving death or severe injuries or who fire their weapons in the line of duty outside of training exercises. 

Lastly, the group wants a guarantee in the officers' contract that all complaints, founded or unfounded, will be made available to the public and will not be removed from officers' personnel files. Supporters say this move will help assuage fears, widely expressed at the March 15 forum, that the department lacks transparency and that officers aren't held accountable for their actions. 

"This will go a long way to showing the public that the Police Department wants to be transparent,' Kerry Pimblott, a University of Illinois graduate student and member of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, said at the April 20 council meeting. "I've filed things, other people have filed FOIA requests, and this is often a difficulty, is getting access to things that we need and believe we should have access to legally.' 

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, which represents Champaign's police officers, declined to answers questions about the proposals by telephone and has not responded to a letter requesting written comments. 

Will Kyles, the only black member of the City Council, was the only one to express support for all three of the CU Citizens for Peace and Justice's proposals, including the public disclosure of citizens' complaints. 

"Restoration of faith that we can and that we will work together as a community would be the reason why I would support those initiatives,' Kyles said. 

Council member Michael LaDue offered his support for the first two proposals, but didn't mention the release of complaint-related documents. He and other council members also voiced concerns about publicly discussing contract negotiations. 

The council is required to be "apart from and above' the negotiation process, he said. 

In his YouTube comments, Mayor Schweighart said President Obama should release his birth certificate to dispel concerns about his citizenship.

"If he doesn't have something to hide, produce it,' the mayor told a UI graduate student who asked for his opinion about Obama and videotaped the response. 

Chambers, the NAACP president, said the city should apply the same principle to records of complaints filed with the Police Department. 

"Produce the raw data and let someone other than those who feel they have a vested interest in law enforcement see what's actually being reported,' Chambers said.



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By Dan Petrella/ For CU-Citizen Access

 

 

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