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Illinois Supreme Court Says Cities Can Keep Police Records Longer Than Union Agreements Allow

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Police departments across Illinois may be able to keep officer disciplinary files longer than union agreements allow.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of the City of Chicago’s right to keep records, even though the union contract calls for them to be destroyed after five years.

The court says destroying such records violates public policy. And it comes at a time the public is seeking more disciplinary information in light of police brutality cases.  The decision likely makes it easier for other communities around the state to keep such records rather than getting rid of them after a fixed time.

It has been controversial in towns like Springfield, when city officials destroyed police records

The justices rejected an arbitrator’s decision, which didn’t necessarily say records should be destroyed immediately, but said that the union and city should negotiate the disposition.

The  lone dissent came from Justice Thomas Kilbride, who wrote the decision might not bode well for unions in Illinois saying “It may well adversely impact the enforceability of other labor agreements.” 

When the court heard the case earlier this year, Chicago attorney Justin Houppert told the state’s high court that disposal of documents goes against  public record laws.

“The General Assembly explicitly stated that pursuant to fundamental principles of American constitutional government, public records are property of the people and should be maintained for their benefit,” said Houppert.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the ruling “entirely the right decision.”  The Better Government Association also applauded the decision.

“News organizations including the Invisible Institute, the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times have been seeking complaint records dating back to 1967. There is no question that people want their police departments to be accountable, and that is only possible with access to information like this,” said Matt Topic, the BGA’s outside general counsel in a prepared statement.

Bill Wheelhouse is a reporter with NPR Illinois in Springfield.

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