• Alex Nitkin
    MAY 13, 2021

    Police misconduct database would cost a fraction of Lightfoot’s estimate: independent analysis

    A pending ordinance would compel the city to open a public database of closed police misconduct files going back to 1994. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]

    Updated Thursday 6:57 p.m. — A City Council budget referee backed up an Inspector General’s cost estimate for a police misconduct transparency ordinance, undercutting Mayor Lightfoot’s earlier opposition to the measure on the grounds that it would be too expensive.

    The City Council Office of Financial Analysis circulated a report this week showing that the ordinance would cost less than $800,000 next year to implement, and costs would decline each subsequent year.

    Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29) introduced an ordinance (SO2020-3999) last September directing Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to publish a “searchable, downloadable digital repository” of closed misconduct complaints filed against sworn Chicago Police officers going back 27 years.

    But Waguespack and Taliaferro agreed to hit pause on the ordinance after a two-hour meeting they co-hosted last month, when multiple aldermen balked at the potential cost of unearthing and publishing decades’ worth of complaint files. An Illinois judge ruled in 2014 that all closed police misconduct files should be publicly accessible.

    Related: Aldermen punt as watchdog presses for police misconduct database: ‘We are out of runway’ 

    Ferguson said during the April 16 hearing that his office estimated the ordinance would cost $709,501 in 2022 to enact, adding up to $1.9 million in total costs to the city through the 2026 fiscal year.

    But one day earlier, Mayor Lori Lightfoot staked her opposition to the ordinance, saying its implementation would mean “literally spending tens of millions of dollars.”

    “I’m happy to go back with the aldermen to look at augmenting what’s already been produced, and there’s a significant amount of [complaint] files already out there, but I do not support that ordinance as proposed,” Lightfoot said on April 15.

    Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) during the hearing asked for an independent review by the City Council’s Office of Financial Analysis, calling the ordinance a “pretty substantial leap of faith.” Ald. Pat Dowell (3), who chairs the council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations, agreed to ask the office to vet the proposal.

    The Office of Financial Analysis distributed its report to aldermen on Tuesday, office director Kenneth Williams told The Daily Line. It projects a $709,501 cost for the ordinance in 2022, matching the inspector’s estimate to the dollar. It projects an annual cost to the city of $322,005.

    Costs predicted for next year include $180,663 for “data protection and network equipment,” $150,000 for a video storage system and about $94,000 in salary and benefits for a full-time staffer the inspector’s office would hire to manage the database.

    A spokesperson for the mayor’s office signaled on Wednesday that she still does not support the existing ordinance but will work with aldermen to “craft a workable solution” to publish complaint files.

    The statement also echoed Lightfoot’s comments from last month, noting that “a number of historic [complaint] files have already been produced and are available for public review” and that the department’s pending federal consent decree “mandates future production of summary files and of course the City is committed to compiling.”

    The spokesperson wrote that Lightfoot “is working with Chairman Waguespack and Chairman Taliaferro, as well as other stakeholders to craft a workable solution to add to the body of historical cases to be added to a public database.”

    “In the meantime, every case report is already publicly available through the Freedom of Information Act process, through which the City and the CPD provide thousands of reports and other documents per year,” the statement concluded.

    But Waguespack told The Daily Line on Thursday that he intends to re-convene the committee in time for the City Council to pass the ordinance on May 26.

    "We're pretty much ready to roll," Waguespack said, adding that he was waiting for the Department of Law to propose a revised draft. City attorneys raised "a couple minor process issues" but the alderman expects the ordinance will remain "pretty much intact," he said.

    Open government advocates like the Better Government Association and investigative journalist Jamie Kalven have lobbied hard for the ordinance, arguing that a searchable database would meaningfully boost the city’s record of transparency on police misconduct.

    Kalven’s Invisible Institute nonprofit has worked to compile its own database, the Citizens Police Data Project, by unearthing complaint records one-by-one. Kalven told aldermen during last month’s hearing that passing the ordinance would enact a “paradigm shift” in transparency rules that would “significantly reduce demands on our existing Freedom of Information Act apparatus.”

    “This ordinance…would throw open the doors of the library to the public,” Kalven said. “This would dramatically enlarge our ability to identify and analyze patterns of police misconduct.”

    Days after last month’s committee hearing, 16 members of Lightfoot’s 2019 “good government” transition team wrote a letter to the mayor urging her to support the database ordinance.

    “You campaigned on the issues of police accountability and transparency,” the advocates wrote in their letter. “Now, in a moment where you have an opportunity to take meaningful action on both, we are disappointed to instead see inaction and excuses.”

    Marie Dillon, director of policy for the Better Government Association, wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Line on Wednesday that the Office of Financial Analysis report’s “numbers confirm what we've been saying all along: The ordinance is a cost-effective way for the city to make these public records truly public.”

    “When you consider the cost for CPD to respond to these FOIA requests under the current process (and the additional legal costs and fees associated with improper denials), this ordinance will save taxpayers money,” Dillon added. “Most importantly, it's a good faith investment in the transparent, accountable policing that Mayor Lightfoot promised to deliver.”

    Waguespack promised to push for the database last July, when the finance committee he chairs voted 21-8 to approve a $500,000 payment (Or2020-170) to settle a lawsuit brought by Charles Green. Some aldermen criticized the deal as “hush money,” noting that it would have shielded the city from Green’s legal bid to force the police department to release more than 50 years’ worth of misconduct complaints.

    Related: Wednesday City Council meeting to consider ordinances on police reform, implosion requirements 

    Waguespack withheld the settlement from a vote by the full City Council, and he committed to pursuing an ordinance directing the city to compile an official catalogue of police allegations.

    Assistant Corporation Counsel Renai Rodney told aldermen during the July meeting that it would cost the city $8 million over 10 years to release all closed police misconduct files between 1967 and 2011.

    Waguespack and Taliaferro revised their ordinance earlier this year so that it would only compel the inspector’s office to publish files going back to 1994.

    Lightfoot’s spokesperson on Wednesday did not identify the source of the mayor’s claim last month that the ordinance would cost “literally tens of millions of dollars” to implement.

    Taliaferro and Ferguson did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

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