City withholds list of accused police
Lawyer had agreed to show aldermen
By David Heinzmann and Gary Washburn | Tribune staff reporters
October 3, 2007
The City of Chicago's top lawyer has denied at least one alderman's written request to see a list of Chicago police officers who have the most excessive force complaints during the last five years, a move that critics say contradicts what the lawyer told federal judges this summer.
Corporation Counsel Mara Georges recently sent a letter to Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th), denying her Aug. 23 request for an unredacted list of Office of Professional Standards complaints.
In July, when the city was arguing in federal court to keep the documents secret, Georges assured the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that aldermen would have access to the confidential records.
"We have agreed to make the confidential documents available to any City Council member who requests them," Georges declared in the city's July 13 emergency motion seeking a stay of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow's order to unseal the records and make them available to the general public.
But in a letter dated Sept. 11, Georges referenced the same appellate court proceedings in turning down Preckwinkle's request.
"These documents are the subject of a pending appeal that seeks to maintain their confidentiality, and we wish to avoid any possibility that allowing them to be reviewed would affect that appeal," Georges wrote. "I hope you understand that I will, therefore, be unable to fulfill your request."
City officials maintain that they made good on the promise to provide the information when they provided copies of the documents with the officers' names blacked out to aldermen in late July, said spokeswoman Jodi Kawada.
The disagreement over the documents comes amid a widening scandal involving the Police Department's Special Operations Section. The documents show that SOS officers have received a disproportionately high number of excessive force complaints.
Georges' argument in the July 13 motion made no mention of redacting names from the documents. And the city's appeal addressed only community activist's motion to make the list public, said Craig Futterman, the University of Chicago law professor who in 2004 filed the original lawsuit that produced the list on behalf of alleged victims. The city's appeal did not challenge Lefkow's order to turn the whole list, including officer names, over to aldermen, Futterman said.
"The judge didn't say 'turn over a redacted list,'" Futterman said.
Preckwinkle said she has not yet made up her mind on possible action, though she is considering whether "I want to go to the judge directly and ask what does she suggest I do."
The alderman made her request after Georges made the assurances to the appellate court.
"It is disappointing, but not surprising," Preckwinkle said Tuesday. "It is sort of consistent with bad behavior by the corporation counsel all the way along. ... This is distressing."
The city has been fighting to keep the records under a protective order in federal court while Mayor Richard Daley announced changes to OPS that he claimed were designed to make the workings of the police oversight agency more transparent.
In recent months the SOS scandal has broadened on multiple fronts. In August the Tribune reported that federal prosecutors were joining the Cook County state's attorney in the investigation. State prosecutors already had brought charges against seven officers accused of robbing and falsely arresting people.
Federal authorities are interested in investigating whether police commanders committed crimes, as well as whether the internal affairs division looked the other way and allowed the SOS officers to continue operating for years despite complaints piling up.
Last week, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald charged a suspended officer, Jerome Finnigan, with plotting to murder a former officer who had been in his unit and had begun cooperating with investigators.
A copy of the documents with police officers' names redacted was made public in July. The records show that the top four police officers on the list, who all had 50 or more misconduct complaints in five years, were members of SOS. The top 10 Special Operations Section officers with the most complaints on the list had a combined total of 408 complaints during five years. Of those complaints, only three were sustained by OPS, and only one resulted in a suspension -- for 15 days. The other two cases ended with reprimands.
One SOS officer was accused of misconduct 55 times, with none of the complaints sustained, according to the documents.
Daley last week defended the unit as a critical law enforcement tool that has been unfairly marred by a few bad apples.
The documents were produced in a lawsuit against police officers and given to the plaintiff under a protective order keeping it secret. After the case was settled this year, Lefkow ordered the protective order lifted, making the records public.
But city lawyers objected, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals responded to Georges' July 13 motion by granting a stay while judges decide what to do about the case.
At a July 9 hearing before Lefkow, the judge said, "I do find it persuasive ... that aldermen of the city are interested in this information because it seems to me as our elected representatives they, of anyone, have an interest in this, a very legitimate interest."
The appellate court is expected to rule on the city's challenge later this fall.