CJP’s Executive Director Tracy Siska’s Statement on Illinois 4th District Appellate Court Decision

The ruling in Gekas v. Williamson, 04-08-0733, greatly expands the public’s ability to validate the processes used by police departments to investigate citizen complaints.  On July 20th, Appellate Judge Thomas R. Appleton speaking for the three-judge panel, correctly stated that there is a significant public interest in maintaining the ability to validate the appropriateness of investigations resulting from citizen complaints against police officers.  The practice by governmental agencies of placing documents they would prefer not be publicly available in the personnel file of a governmental employee does not shield the documents from release under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. Judge Appleton found that “what he {an officer} does in his capacity as a deputy sheriff is not his private business,” (decision, p. 19).

For too long, policing agencies has categorized civilian complaints against officers and any documents created in response to those investigations were by default part of the officers personnel file and exempt from release through Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.  This categorization severally restricted the ability for citizens to have confidence in the procedures used to investigate these complaints because the complaints and subsequent investigations were shielded from public view. Abuses stemming from police actions are particularly troubling in communities of color in Chicago.  This increased transparency will go a long way to reducing mistrust between these communities and police agencies because citizens will be allowed the access they need to assure that the investigations are thorough. We also see benefits that will be felt by officers that fall prey to false accusations that make it to the press.

This new level of transparency will allow officers to provide interested parties with the fruits of the investigation that prove that the accusation is unfounded.  Currently, officers are left with vague and unverifiable statements from their agency about the lack of credibility of an accusation; however, this statement lacks the benefit of providing evidence to support the claim that the citizen complaint was unfounded. While CJP understands that the current language of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act requires that the names of citizens filing complaints must be redacted prior to the complaint being released.

We believe that for a completely fair process to be put into place that the legislature should take another look at this language and allow the names of citizens filing complaints to be made public as a part of releasing the overall complaint.  This would provide community members and police officers the ability to identify individuals that file repeat complaints that are routinely categorized as unfounded.  This would greatly increase the ability of all involved to judge the legitimacy of citizen complaints. Access to information from the criminal justice system is vital for communities that are seeking to play a significant role in securing their communities from crime, violence, and abuse of the system.  The restrictions on access serve to dis-empower residents from playing a role in their community and in the construction of criminal justice policy that directly affects their community.  The validation of the patterns and practices of governmental agencies by the public is a vital part of our democracy.

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If you would like more information about this topic, or to schedule an interview with Tracy Siska, please contact Tracy at his office at (312) 564 – 5685 – on his cell at (312) 617 – 1560 – or via email at tsiska@chicagojustice.org

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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