Last July, former City Clerk Devon Reid implemented a police transparency policy. Almost a year later, the city has yet to follow it.
June 25, 2021
Last July, Devon Reid, Evanston’s city clerk at the time, announced a policy he claimed would increase police transparency: publishing Evanston Police Department misconduct and use of force records on the city website.
In an interview with The Daily, Reid said the policy is important for holding the police accountable and also improving future police behavior. But it has been almost a year since the policy was announced, and no such records have been released. Instead, the policy has been the subject of a dispute over ownership of records between the city clerk’s office and EPD.
Reid, who was elected Eighth Ward alderperson in April, said the lack of record publication is because EPD and the city manager’s office are refusing to comply with the rule by not providing records for the city’s website. At the time, Reid did not pursue the policy further because that would require filing a lawsuit, and he said he wanted to focus on his aldermanic campaign.
Now an elected member of City Council, Reid said he plans to ask the city manager and police chief why they aren’t following the rule in a City Council or Reimagining Public Safety Committee hearing.
“We know that body camera footage and misconduct reports can be critical in exposing wrongdoing and helping root out misbehavior in our police department,” Reid said.
Thus, Reid said the policy’s implementation is essential for increased police accountability. Newly elected City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza said she supports the policy and plans to speak with the police chief and city attorney about why it is not being followed.
However, the city manager’s office believes Reid exceeded his authority in issuing such a policy. Patrick Deignan, communications manager for the city manager’s office, said since the police chief has control over EPD’s records, the city clerk does not have the authority to implement such a rule.
Reid announced the policy in a July 24 memo, which said it applies to all records related to formal police misconduct complaints, including accompanying police reports, bodycam footage and other relevant documents. The policy also requires the release of records related to use of force incidents in which a firearm, taser, stun gun or chemical agent is used.
Under the policy, complainants’ names would be redacted, but the names of all officers present at the incident of alleged misconduct or use of force would be made public.
The rule requires the city to release the records within 15 business days of the complaint being filed or the use of force occurring. It also requires the release of misconduct complaints filed since 2016 and records of use of force incidents that have occured since the beginning of 2020.
“Only through transparency and a proactive releasing of Complaint Registers and Use of Force by weapon reports may we work to increase trust in the system and best hold our police department accountable,” Reid said in the memo.
While formulating the policy, the clerk’s office met with EPD, Chicago-based civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy and the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based journalism organization that maintains an online database of Chicago police misconduct records.
Currently, police misconduct and use of force records can become publicly available through the Freedom of Information Act, but this requires someone to file a request for them. Reid said it is more helpful to the public for them to be automatically released, as people may not even know these records exist. This policy also ensures police records aren’t “able to be buried and hidden and obstructed through complicated processes,” which can occur with FOIAs, he said.
Betty Ester, president of local police accountability organization Citizens’ Network of Protection, said the group has sometimes run into roadblocks in obtaining records through FOIAs. Often, the city may declare the request “unduly burdensome” or claim the requested records contain sensitive personal information.
Ester said the city is generally responsive to FOIA requests, but she supports making police records automatically available.
“Any policy that makes things available to the public — to the residents of a community — is a good policy,” Ester said. “(Making) things for the residents to have access to any and all government records so that they know what their government is doing is a good policy.”
Reid said the policy is also important because knowing misconduct and use of force records will be automatically released could encourage officers to be more careful about their actions, making them less likely to commit misconduct or use force unnecessarily.
At a July 27 City Council meeting, Reid debated the rule with then-Mayor Steve Hagerty and then-City Attorney Kelley Gandurski, who argued Reid had exceeded his authority in issuing the policy, though Hagerty and Gandurski both said they had not had time to fully review it.
In defense of his issuance of the policy, Reid cited a portion of the Evanston City Code stating the city clerk is “the custodian and keeper of all the books, records, ordinances and papers of the City.” However, Gandurski said this does not give the clerk the authority to tell other city departments how to operate.
“(The policy) seems to direct the chief of police on how to run the police department and policies pertaining to FOIA,” she said. “Operations and policymaking for the chief of police is under his purview and the purview of the city manager. Operations with regard to FOIA are run by the FOIA statute.”
Reid said the rule doesn’t relate to FOIA, but Gandurski said FOIA is the proper avenue for releasing city records to the public.
Later on, Reid criticized Hagerty for trying to block the policy, bringing up the issue of race and policing.
“Let’s be clear about what you’re doing right now,” Reid said. “You’re impinging on the authority of a Black elected official around police misconduct and use of force records.”
Also present at the meeting was attorney Matt Topic, who spoke during public comment. Topic heads Loevy & Loevy’s Freedom of Information Act practice and represented the journalist who successfully sued for the release of footage showing the killing of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer.
“Clerk Reid has developed a policy that will ensure that records about police misconduct and use of force are promptly released to the public,” Topic said. “The law is very clear that these are public records subject only to limited exemptions.”
Topic said under the City Code, it is clear the city clerk has the authority to issue such a policy.
Deignan, the city spokesperson, said in an email to The Daily that the city clerk does not have the authority to issue policies directing other city departments. Under the City Code, he said, the police chief is responsible for all police records.
When asked about the city’s refusal to follow the policy, current City Attorney Nicholas Cummings and EPD Cmdr. Brian Henry referred to Deignan’s statement.
The City Code says the police chief “shall keep detailed records showing the work of the Department of Police” and that the city clerk shall keep “all papers belonging to the City, the custody and control of which are not given to other officers.”
The police department also has its own FOIA officer. The city clerk used to fulfill all FOIA requests for the city, but in 2019 City Council voted that the police, law and collector’s departments should separately handle requests for their departments.
At the July 27 City Council meeting, Topic said it should not be up to the police whether records are released.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen too often how placing these decisions in the hands of a police department results in improper denials and costly litigation to your taxpayers,” Topic said.
Reid also spoke during public comment, saying he would fight to ensure the policy is implemented.
“I do have this authority,” Reid said. “And I will be standing up to make sure that the authority that I have is upheld.”
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