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Chicago police's misconduct files policy praised

Published: Monday, July 14, 2014 11:46 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO – A new policy will make public all completed investigations of Chicago police misconduct instead of treating them as personnel matters, a move that a law school professor involved in the litigation that led to the change says will bring transparency to a department that has long been dogged by a reputation for brutality and a code of silence.

The decision, which was announced Sunday by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office, ends a legal fight over the city's long-standing policy of exempting police misconduct incidents from 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.

University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman also said Monday that by forcing the Chicago Police Department to hand over to those who file FOIA requests information on specific cases as well as the names of officers who have been repeatedly accused of misconduct, the department will be forced to investigate patterns of abuse.

"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 policy change represents an attempt to regain public trust for a police department that has never completely shaken its reputation for brutality and misconduct since even before the vivid footage of officers beating protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Since then, other scandals have hit the department, including one that led to the imprisonment of former police commander Jon Burge, who was convicted of perjury and is accused of overseeing the torture of dozens of men to coerce confessions. The CPD's reputation also was hurt by widely viewed surveillance video of off-duty officer Anthony Abbate beating a bartender in 2007 after she refused to serve him any more alcohol. Abbate, no longer with the department, was convicted in the case.

Emanuel's office said Sunday that 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 details on Burge and Abbate. Futterman said the public will be able to see recommendations made after internal investigations and not simply the final decision, which is significant in cases like Abbate's, in which there were widespread suspicions about the department's investigation.

The city also 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.

The policy could also prove a powerful incentive for prosecutors to investigate whether detectives have been accused of misconduct before, which Taylor said could "have a dramatic impact on wrongful convictions."

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