Illinois AG’s Office Sides with News-Gazette in FOIA Request
By Jim Meadows
The Illinois Attorney General’s office is once again siding with the News-Gazette in Champaign in its request for information from citizen complaints about Champaign police conduct. But their opinion released August 16th is a non-binding one, which does not require compliance.
News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade said he had been hoping for a binding ruling that would force the city of Champaign to either release the requested information or take the matter to court.
Wade and the News-Gazette filed their initial Freedom of Information Request with the city of Champaign in June of 2011. It sought a list of all complaints against the Champaign Police Department, its officers and employees for the past five years. The city's response partially complied with the request, leaving out the names of officers who were the subject of complaints, but who had not been subject to discipline by the department.
The opinion issued by Lisa Madigan’s office said it wasn’t enough to release only those complaints that resulted in officers being disciplined. In addition, the Attorney General’s office said all complaints about police conduct, including the names of officers, should be released.
"We cannot overlook the extremely strong public interest in access to citizen complaints against public officers and employees," according to the opinion written by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Rogina of the office's Public Access Burea.
"Under the Record Review Act, the City asserts that it may withhold disciplinary matters more than four years old and that the responsive complaints would qualify as disciplinary records," Rogina added. "The City, however, concedes that several different courses of action may be taken by the Department in response to a citizen complaint. Because a citizen complaint may not result in discipline, a citizen complaint cannot qualify as a disciplinary record.
Wade said he understands the reluctance of city officials to give out officers’ names from complaints, when those complaints did not result in discipline. However, he noted the controversial 2011 Campustown arrest of Brandon Ward, in which officers connected to the s arrest were disciplined only after a follow-up investigation.
“One of the issues with the citizens’ complaint process in that the police police themselves,” Wade said. “It’s all self-investigated, self-policed. Who’s to say that they’re always going to look at these complaints properly?”
Champaign city attorney Fred Stavins said information on cases where disciple was handed out meets the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.
“If it’s part of the adjudicatory process, the statute is clear, that the (redacted) information does not have to be produced,” Stavins said. “Only the final outcome of the discipline has to be produced. That’s what the statute says.”
Stavins said more discussion is needed before the city responds to the non-binding opinion from the Attorney General’s office. The opinion states that the office's Public Access Counselor does not believe that a binding opinion is required.