Chicago police unions push for destruction of old disciplinary files for officers

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CHICAGO — Unions representing Chicago police officers are fighting for the destruction of tens of thousands of documents from disciplinary files dating back several decades, just as activists and community leaders are demanding more access and transparency from a department under intense scrutiny after several controversial police shootings.

The unions’ contracts with the city stipulate that the records, including complaints alleging misconduct, be destroyed after five years in most cases if no litigation is ongoing.

The city says it has had to keep the files because of federal court orders issued in litigation going back to the 1990s. But the unions say they only recently discovered they still existed when the city informed them it would release all documents as part of a public records request by reporters.

A judge who has kept the records in limbo for more than a year said at a hearing Friday that he would keep a union-requested injunction in place pending the outcome of more negotiations between the city and the unions. Arbitrators have sided with the unions but in a decision this week gave the sides until March 15 to work out a system for determining which of the documents are subject to destruction.

Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn said Friday that he will eventually have to consider whether the state’s Freedom of Information Act requires the city to release material it shouldn’t have had in the first place.

Those pushing for changes to the police force say the public has a right to see it all, especially in light of recent cases like the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald.

The officer who shot McDonald, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with first-degree murder only hours before the video was released and more than a year after the shooting. His attorney says he acted properly and fired out of fear for his life.

Van Dyke was the subject of 18 civilian complaints over 14 years, including allegations that he used racial epithets and excessive force, police and court records show.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged greater openness and “complete and total reform” of the system and culture of policing, but protests and calls for his resignation have persisted.

The unions argue that police officers are susceptible to false complaints and reports that go unsubstantiated should not have an indefinite shelf life. The contracts state that even files that are linked to litigation have to be destroyed once those cases are finished, in most instances.

It’s one of several sweeping protections in the union contract that critics want scaled back in light of recent cases.

“We have serious, systemic problems in the city of Chicago,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and reform advocate who is pressing for the police files to be released. “You don’t destroy evidence. … They have to be produced; it’s that simple.”