At the meeting of the Chicago City Council Committee on Public Safety held Wednesday, Feb. 9, committe chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro displayed on screen a proposed ordinance that would give Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) Chief Administrators special powers outside of state law to redact names from the agency’s published reports. According to Ald. Taliaferro and the publicly posted agenda on the City Clerk’s website, the language is intended to be presented and voted on as a direct introduction at the next Public Safety Committee meeting, currently scheduled for Feb. 17 at 2:00pm.
The Better Government Association strongly opposes any language giving government officers discretionary power to retroactively edit or redact public records. Any such ordinance would be a clear danger to the reliability of public records and a violation of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Moreover, altering a public record would likely put the individual officer doing so at risk of criminal liability under the Local Records Act.
The ordinance as shown on Wednesday would amend the duty of the Chief Administrator specified in MCC 2-78-145 to make Final Summary Reports of COPA investigations available for public inspection. Currently the reports must be made public “except to the extent that information contained therein has been redacted because it is exempted from disclosure by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act or any other applicable law.”
The language presented Wednesday would add a second exception if “the Chief Administrator determines, in his or her discretion, that redacting the identity of one or more sworn Police Department personnel is appropriate because the relevant person(s) died with honor in the line of duty and after consideration of both the dignity and respect for those person(s) and the public interest of the information.”
This proposed language would directly contradict the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which provides no such exemption. Except where exempted by FOIA, disciplinary records and records of investigation are public records, and cannot be redacted or revised after the fact, nor can local ordinance overrule state provisions to do so (as the City itself successfully argued in City of Chicago v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals.)
Discretionary power of an appointed administrator to retroactively alter public records in any way is a clear danger to transparency, accountability, and open government. Regardless of the circumstances of an individual’s death, the record of their work as a public employee is of public and historic interest. After-the-fact revisions of public records undermine their reliability and their accuracy as a record of the time at which they were generated.
The Better Government Association strongly opposes this proposed language and urges members of City Council to oppose any ordinance granting City officials discretionary authority to alter public records. Any such ordinance invites inevitable legal challenge (including on precedents set by the City’s own legal actions), puts individual officers attempting to comply with the law at risk of criminal prosecution, attacks the Freedom of Information Act that is the bedrock of government transparency in our state, and creates a dangerous precedent of allowing unelected administrators, however well-intentioned in theory, to alter official records.
Members of the Public Safety Committee are urged to vote “Do Not Pass” if a measure authorizing retroactive redaction of public records is called for a vote.