CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois attorney general's office for a second time has ruled in favor of The News-Gazette in a request for information about citizen complaints against police officers that has spanned years.
Assistant City Attorney Laura Hall said on Monday that officials will first meet internally to discuss the ruling before deciding whether to release the information. Last year, despite a first ruling in the newspaper's favor, city officials decided to continue withholding the names of officers against whom citizens have alleged misconduct.
For more than two years, the city has refused to release the names of police officers identified in dozens of citizen complaints. Last week, in response to an appeal by the newspaper, the attorney general's office for the second time instructed the city to release those names.
In its most recent request, the newspaper in June 2011 asked for four years' worth of complaints, a brief description of each complaint and the names of the officers against whom the complaints were filed.
Two weeks later, the city returned a table showing 108 complaints against 61 different officers. In 17 instances in which the complaint was sustained and some kind of discipline was issued, the officers' names were released. In the remaining complaints, the names of the officers were redacted, along with the name of the police official who investigated the complaint and the name of the person who filed the complaint.
The newspaper appealed in July 2011, and last week, the attorney general's office issued a nonbinding opinion that city officials improperly denied the names of officers against whom complaints were filed. The office disputed city officials' rationale that the complaint itself is a record relating to an "actual adjudication," which would be exempted under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
A citizen complaint against a police officer does not necessarily require that kind of formal hearing, the attorney general ruled.
"Moreover, we cannot overlook the extremely strong public interest in access to citizen complaints against public officers and employees," says the ruling, written by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Rogina.
The opinion is similar to a first ruling from earlier in 2011. The News-Gazette had filed a request for citizen complaints in 2010, and when the city redacted officers' names, the newspaper appealed. In March 2011, the attorney general's office ruled in favor of the newspaper.
In June 2011, the city informed the newspaper that it disagreed with the attorney general's nonbinding opinion and would not be releasing the information. Then-Assistant City Attorney Trisha Crowley said the city had recently made the complaint process more open, and in doing so, officials needed to be more protective of the identities of officers, particularly of those in unfounded complaints.
"For the officers, there are also real world consequences if their names are released as having complaints filed against them, even if the ultimate finding is that they acted appropriately," Crowley wrote in her June 21, 2011, letter to the newspaper. "The complaints, though unfounded, could be used to attempt to affect their credibility with the judge or jury in a criminal case in which they were testifying; they could be targeted out on the street while in the performance of their regular duties."