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Opinion: Decades Of Complaints Against Chicago Cops Are On The Verge Of Being Destroyed

The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

Update 12/4/2015: While police complaint info dating back to 1967 still remain in limbo, The Washington Post reports that Illinois Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn has ordered Chicago authorities to notify journalists and activists before destroying any records related to police misconduct.

In 2014, the Illinois appellate court ruled that records of police misconduct are public information. In theory, access to police complaint data would have given Chicagoans the kind of view of police misconduct no other city has ever been privy to.

But a majority of the complaints were never released. Citing their contract with the city, Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) was able to get an injunction on most of the data dating back to 1967.

Instead of almost five decades of complaints against the police, the city was only able to release data going back to 2011. Combined with data obtained from two civil lawsuits against the city, this information can be seen at the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), courtesy of Chicago non-profit Invisible Institute.

RELATED: Data: Chicago Cops Face Many Misconduct Allegations, But Are Rarely Disciplined

Currently, the city and FOP are fighting over the release of this data in the appellate court. If the city loses, they may have to destroy all records and evidence pertaining to police complaints that are more than five-years-old.

In short, the records now sit on a precarious fence, destruction on one side, public release on the other.

Who's involved, what do they want?

Two of the many individuals who've fought for police complaint records to become public include journalist Jamie Kalven and civil rights lawyer Craig Futterman, who have spent more than a decade attempting to obtain this data. The city, credit where credit is due, gave up their fight against releasing the data last year. It's the city of Chicago who is currently in court fighting to make the complaint data accessible, with FOP arguing that most of the data should be destroyed.

For Kalven and Futterman, police complaint data is integral in the fight for justice for police abuse victims. One such victim, whose lawsuit against the city helped some of the data become public, is Diane Bond. In 2003, according to a lawsuit against the city, Bond alleged that officers "sexually, verbally and physically assaulted her."

Bond had been living in Chicago's Stateway Gardens public housing development in Bronzeville, where CPD's now disbanded Special Operations Unit had become infamous for terrorizing locals. Among the allegations: putting a gun to Bond's head, kicking and slapping her, beating her son and her son's friend, and ransacking Bond's home.

In an article, Kalven described the abuse Bond allegedly faced after a Chicago officer took her into her bathroom and closed the door.

(Warning: This may be hard to read...)

"He ordered her to unfasten her bra and shake it up and down. Sobbing, she did as he told her. He ordered her to take her shoes off. Then he told her to pull her pants down and stick her hand inside her panties. Standing inches away in the small bathroom, he made her repeatedly pull her panties away from her body, exposing herself, while he looked on."

All of this allegedly happened without a search warrant or probable cause. No drugs were recovered. The officers denied all of the allegations. The city ended up settling with Bond at the end of 2006 for $150,000, but did not admit any wrongdoing.

Bond's lawsuit is one of two that led to Kalven using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a list of the officers with the most complaints between 2001 and 2008. These attempts at making police complaint data public through FOIA resulted in Kalven v. City of Chicago, leading to the court to conclude that the police misconduct records should be released to the public.

Surprising activists, the Mayor's Office didn't attempt to stand in the way of the court's decision.

This is when FOP stepped in, obtaining an injunction against all but the most recent data.

Why stop the release?

FOP's grounds for the injunction against the release of police complaint data aren't baseless. Their contract is clear: "All disciplinary investigation files, disciplinary history card entries, IPRA and IAD disciplinary records, and any other disciplinary record or summary of such record other than records related to Police Board cases, will be destroyed five (5) years after the date of the incident or the date upon which the violation is discovered, whichever is longer..."

In fact, when it comes to the ways in which Chicago officers can be investigated and what is done with the records from those investigations, the contract has many complicated rules. You can see them yourself by reading the contract.

As Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo pointed out to me in a conversation, the contract with the 5-year rule has been "signed by the union and the city and approved by the city council."

According to Angelo, stipulations like this have been in the contracts for longer than he can remember. The oldest contract I looked at was from July, 1999, and most of these details were there.

Angelo raised a few concerns about the release of all police complaint data going back to 1967.

"There are fewer than 2 complaints per officer per calendar year," Angelo estimates. "I don't see the need to put people's names and identifiers and to post that online, cause they got kids, they got in-laws..."

According to the CPDP data, Angelo's partially right. When looking at Chicago's entire police force, most officers have a small number of complaints. But, when looking at the data, it's also notable that a small handful of officers have a disproportionately higher-than-average number of complaints.

Defending the many cops with few complaints, Angelo used the example of somebody's grandfather to emphasize the privacy issues at hand. Hypothetically, your policeman grandfather could have had a single complaint of excessive force lodged against him back in 1970 that led to no disciplinary actions. Should that baseless complaint be public record? What happens if John Doe, sensationalist reporter, implies that a single, unproven complaint represents your grandfather's entire career?

"With a population of our numbers and how many guys or girls get in trouble... It's a minute fraction." Angelo lamented. "But we all have to bear the brunt of any of that activity that's not acceptable. Comes with the territory and the job."

Why have activists spent a decade trying to get the police complaint data released?

For Craig Futterman, who specializes in civil rights lawsuits and is a professor of the University of Chicago Law School, the existence of police complaint data is extremely important. In his ideal world, the data would be available for everyone to use, from journalists to policymakers, and especially police department's themselves. He doesn't disagree with Angelo's assertion that the majority of Chicago's police officers aren't accumulating huge numbers of abuse complaints -- he's concerned with the relatively small percent of officers that standout.

According to the CPDP data, which is only a partial look at police complaints, officers with more than 10 complaints make up about 10 percent of Chicago's police force, yet have accrued 30 percent of all complaints. These officers average 3.7 times the number of complaints per officer as the rest of the force.

Is a high number of complaints a smoking gun? No. Futterman doesn't think they're proof of guilt, but he does argue that patterns like this are worth investigating. He goes as far as to assert that destroying police complaint data puts lives at risk.

"This destruction would destroy all the evidence of abuse, including police torture..." Futterman, who sits on the Illinois Torture Commission, told me. "There are nearly 100 complaints before [the Illinois Torture Commission] right now from people who say that they were tortured by police dating back years."

Futterman used Shawn Whirl as an example. Tortured into a confession by a detective working under the infamous Jon Burge, Whirl wasn't only slapped and stepped on -- the detective allegedly used a set of keys to scrape away at a wound on Whirl's leg until it was bloody and raw. Whirl has spent the last 24 years in prison. On October 14, after a Cook County Judge overturned his conviction, Whirl was freed.

"Chicago refuses to examine patterns of abuse in any way whatsoever when it comes to investigating or disciplining misconduct," Futterman said "... That's more than broken, that's turning a blind eye to potential problems that have cost Chicago millions of dollars in terms of taxpayers, but probably more importantly, has cost so many families and individuals their lives."

In the past decade, the city has paid out more than half a billion dollars in settlements due to police misconduct. Recently, the city approved a $5 million dollar settlement to the family of Laquan McDonald, who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in October of 2014. Outwardly, settlements sometimes appear to be the only justice at the disposal of the Mayor, Superintendent and the City Council, who often appear to have their hands tied by the rules governing police complaint investigations -- rules that they themselves helped create and approve.

If an officer is doing any kind of serious criminal investigation, Futterman explained, they use data to look at suspects. They look at a suspect's background, they see if the suspect has any acquaintances, they look for a pattern, a motive... But when an officer is the one being investigated, investigators often aren't allowed to use past complaints to aid in the investigation. This is just one of many systemic barriers preventing investigators from effectively looking into abuse allegations, Futterman argues.

Will the public's right to this data trump the union's contract?

The court proceedings for this are private, so only those close to the case are fully aware where the future of the Department's complaint data currently stands. The city theoretically submitted their arguments to the court on November 20th, but CPD and the Mayor's Office haven't replied to my attempts to confirm this.

From my personal experience with what little data has been released, the power of this information is clear. Among the officers with the most complaints, I have found a handful of bad cops who've broken CPD rules, broken the law and violated the rights of Chicago citizens. Some of these officers are in prison, while others are still wearing a badge, having arguably gotten away with deeds that would have put any other individual in jail. The patterns are there if you look for them. And in my eyes, they deserve to be looked at, especially by the Chicago Police Department.

Ultimately, as protesters take to the streets over the death of a 17-year-old boy at the hands of a Chicago police officer, it's pretty difficult to make a convincing argument against more transparency within the Chicago Police Department.

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.

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