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Why FOIA Matters To You: Chicago Routinely Withholds Records And Videos That Should Be Public, But Courts Can Force Their Hand

by Samah Assad, Megan Hickey, Dave Savini, and Michele Youngerman

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago police officers wrongly raid your home. Your alderman is using taxpayer money for a project you oppose. A pothole damaged your car and you want to know if the city knew about it then failed to fix it.  Just a few issues you, the taxpayer, might want to dig into and get the facts.

This is when the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) becomes a great tool. The goal of this law is to ensure transparency by giving the public access to documents, videos, and other information created and maintained by government.

Our CBS 2 Investigators have found, oftentimes FOIA requests get delayed or even rejected. Domonique Wilson knows this first hand.  In March, Chicago police executed a search warrant at her home and handcuffed her eight-year-old son for an extended period of time.  Wilson said officers left him traumatized and with bruises on his wrists.  Police said they did not know the child's age.

Royal Smart, 8, was handcuffed by police. (CBS)

Wilson submitted a FOIA request to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to get the police body camera video from the raid.  The response she received said it is too burdensome of a request.

"I have every right to see those videos," said Domonique Wilson.  "It's burdensome because it's something to hide, and because, it's something you don't want to be exposed."

Anjanette Young also filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the body camera video a wrong raid at her home, in which, she said she was naked and handcuffed.  Young is still waiting for CPD to comply with FOIA and release the video.

Anjanette Young

CBS 2 also filed FOIA request for the video from the raid at Young's home, which was denied, and we have appealed the denial.

Under FOIA, government agencies can argue it will require too many hours to review or redact video or records.  Though they will not always win the argument.

Attorney Matt Topic specializes in FOIA and government transparency.

"CPD routinely violated FOIA, especially for videos," said Topic.  "But, CPD usually loses those arguments in court."

Laquan McDonald Shooting Video
Dashcam footage showing a Chicago police officer fatally shoot Laquan McDonald. (Source; Chicago police)

Topic has been part of significant, and successful, FOIA cases against the City of Chicago.  He fought for the release of Chicago police dashcam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke is serving a nearly seven year prison sentence convicted of killing the teen.  Topic also fought for the release of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel's government-related e-mails sent to his private e-mail account.

"FOIA is a powerful tool for holding the government accountable and ensuring we are all treated fairly," said Topic.

In Wilson's case, there was a question of fair treatment. Chicago police claimed they did not have to release the 16 hours of video involving the raid and Wilson's handcuffed son. Police said it would take too much time to review and release it. They tried to use a FOIA exemption - saying it was unduly burdensome therefore not subject to FOIA. However, CPD had no problem spending the time to review and release 70 hours of video in the Jussie Smollett case.  In that case, Chicago police were upset the actor was not prosecuted for filing a false police report.

Wilson believes the case of her traumatized, handcuffed child should be just as upsetting and subject to being released under FOIA. She says there is a lack of integrity in this process.

Domonique Wilson. (CBS)

CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini exposed this case. The very next day, Chicago police gave the body camera video to Wilson.


Royal Smart Handcuffed
Royal Smart, 8, said police handcuffed him for 30 minutes after a SWAT team raided his home, looking for guns. Officers found nothing and made no arrests. (Source: CPD Body Camera Video)

Attorney Matt Topic says the city often fails to comply with FOIA.

"Very often," said Topic.  "Some agencies, like CPD, don't even bother to respond until they get sued.  Others, like the Mayor's Office, respond, but put up unreasonable obstacles that aren't supported by law."

In June, CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini questioned Mayor Lori Lightfoot about the Chicago Police Department's failure to release search warrant data requested through FOIA two months earlier.

"You raised the question of FOIA.  I'm all about it," said Mayor Lightfoot.  "I don't want people to have to hire lawyers, sue the city, to get access to basic information."

Before hiring a lawyer to sue for records, there is a process to appeal any FOIA rejection or a FOIA gone unanswered.  These appeals are handled by the Illinois Attorney General's office.

Here's a link to file an appeal.

CBS 2 Investigators have an ongoing appeal against the Chicago Police Department.  In April 2019, CBS 2 Investigators submitted a FOIA request to obtain search warrant data relevant to a year-long investigation into officers raiding the wrong homes and traumatizing innocent families.  The Chicago Police Department has not complied with FOIA.  The Illinois Attorney General's office has taken up this appeal.  As of November 12, 2019, the appeal is ongoing.

If a FOIA appeal fails, the next step would be to file a lawsuit.  Matt Topic says most people cannot afford to file FOIA cases, but should know successful cases could cost nothing.  A judge could order the city to pay for all the expenses.

"So we rely on the fee recovery provisions in the statute," said Topic.  "We file multiple [FOIA lawsuits] against the city every month and sometimes every week."

Meanwhile, another family impacted by a wrong raid is planning to file a federal lawsuit on Thursday. CBS 2's Freedom Of Information Act filing seeking police body camera video was denied late Wednesday. In a letter, CPD said it refused to release the video because there were no arrests or use of force. CBS 2 will appeal the decision.

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