CHICAGO—The Better Government Association filed a lawsuit today challenging the Chicago Police Department’s refusal to release documents showing where tactical units were deployed earlier in 2011.
Chicago is divided into 25 police districts that traditionally have several tactical units comprised of officers who often are plainclothes, operating in unmarked squad cars and focusing on, among other things, guns, gangs and drugs.
The BGA heard anecdotally that, in recent years, the tactical units have often been assigned outside their home districts, sometimes for prolonged periods.
Hoping to learn more about such deployments – whether public safety was being served, and whether tax dollars were being spent wisely – the BGA asked the Chicago Police Department in June for deployment data covering the first five months of 2011. The BGA made this request while citing the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law guaranteeing public access to all public documents, with limited exemptions.
The police department indicated that the BGA’s request was “unduly burdensome” because of the number of documents that would have to be located and reviewed, and asked the BGA to scale back the time frame.
The BGA complied, limiting the request to deployment figures for a two-week period in the spring.
The police department then denied the BGA’s request, saying that releasing such information would “undermine the effectiveness of the City’s security measures as well as jeopardize the safety of the personnel designated to implement these measures.”
Before and after these requests, the BGA approached aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel – who oversees the police department – for help in obtaining the requested data and avoiding litigation. But phone calls and emails went unreturned.
“We don’t enjoy filing lawsuits, but when government withholds potentially important information that the public is entitled to, and refuses to work toward an amicable solution, going to court is the only option,” said Andy Shaw, the BGA’s president and CEO.
“Here’s the issue: the Chicago Police Department is one of the largest single expenses for city taxpayers – with around 14,000 employees and a budget of more than $1 billion,” Shaw added. “The public has a right to know how their money is being spent – and whether officers are being deployed in a fair and intelligent way to keep neighborhoods safe.”
Shaw also said that he doesn’t buy the city’s argument that releasing past deployment documents would compromise the safety of officers or foul up security plans.
“We’re asking about historical data, not future plans,” he said. “This was the same faulty logic the police department used when, some months ago, we tried to find out how much taxpayers were spending on Ald. Ed Burke’s police security detail. We sued in that case, too, and the city eventually released the financial figures.”
“Our hope is, with a new mayor who says that transparency is a top priority, the police department’s longstanding practice of secrecy will evaporate.”
This new lawsuit was filed Monday in Cook County Circuit Court. A copy of the complaint is available below.
For media questions and interviews, please call:
Mary Frances O’Connor, BGA communications, (312) 821-9026
Robert Herguth, BGA investigations, (312) 821-9030