Nonprofit Sues Chicago States Attorney Alleging Repeated FOIA Violations

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December 16, 2015; Chicago Business

The fallout from the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald continues. The Chicago Justice Project (CJP), a nonprofit that analyzes data from criminal-justice agencies, is suing the Cook County’s State’s Attorney’s office alleging that it has repeatedly violated the state’s open-records law. If the suit is successful, it will force the office to turn over a multitude of public records that the CJP has been seeking since last year through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

According to the lawsuit, between 2008 and 2009 the CJP requested demographic data on certain crimes involving sexual assault as the State’s Attorney’s office reviewed the cases to determine if felony charges were justified. For several years, the office demurred from providing the data, which is used in part to see prosecutorial trends. From January 2014 to July 2014, the organization filed five other FOIA requests, none of which led to a data release. According to the lawsuit, this lack of cooperation illustrates “a pattern and practice of circumventing the requirements of FOIA.”

The State’s Attorney’s office has been under heavy scrutiny in the aftermath of the McDonald tragedy. A Cook County judge had to intervene to make law-enforcement agencies follow through on the FOIA request to publicly release the dashboard videos of the fatal shooting. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez waited a year to file charges against the police officer who fatally shot McDonald, and only did so after the video was released. The video was the smoking gun in what many have called a blatant cover-up for excessive use of force in an unwarranted civilian death. The video illustrated a clear contradiction in the statements that police officers at the scene officially gave to investigators and the public and what actually took place. Since then, various officials and members of the public have called for Alvarez’s resignation.

“The big question is whether the actual filing of the suit brings the state’s attorney’s office to the table,” said CJP executive director Tracy Siska. “We are not here for a token victory. They’re going to have to commit to opening up, forever.”

Lack of transparency has been a major issue for Chicago’s State’s Attorney, the dysfunctional police department, and mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. Emanuel and the police department fought for nearly a year to prevent McDonald’s video from being released. Once it was, it was clear why they were trying to prevent it from becoming public. — Shafaq Hasan