Roll Call: Communities benefit from transparent policing

You might think that everybody in Illinois knows the meaning of FOIA, but you would be mistaken. FOIA is the acronym for Freedom of Information Act, which is actually an Illinois statute.

The law was passed several years ago. It was spearheaded by then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan as a way to not only allow the public to obtain more information on government operations, but allow the media wider access to information it would deem in the public’s interest. One area that was heavily focused on was police operations and police reports, including arrest information.

What frustrates me about this statute is there is a lot of noncompliance going on behind the scenes. Government entities, specifically police departments, are not following the FOIA law or purposely are obstructing the process. Most police departments walk a tightrope because access to government documents is a fundamental part of our system of open government.

The way that Illinois has made this access possible is by allowing media organizations and residents to obtain government records by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act. To file a FOIA request in Illinois, you first have to find the FOIA officer for each municipality. Almost every police agency has a FOIA request form on their website, however, it is not the law that you must fill out the form developed by the municipality.

When I went to the FOIA training conducted by the attorney general’s office, they told us that residents could write their FOIA request on a napkin and submit it to the police department and it was considered a lawful request under the Illinois statute. I am not encouraging this, but my point is you are not required to use a municipality’s FOIA request form.

Additionally, there really is no specific language that needs to be used for the FOIA request. The best way to get information is to be specific. You can simply write down what you are looking for, and in most cases, the government agency is required to answer the FOIA request within five days. Police agencies and other government agencies can request a continuance and typically do. There are a number of exceptions that apply for not releasing information. One that is typically used and covered under the law is not releasing information that would jeopardize a pending criminal investigation or indictment.

Almost all police chiefs and their staffs have been trained on the proper way to handle FOIA requests. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has provided training for FOIA officers and police executives. Additionally, police chief organizations routinely conduct in-house training on how to answer FOIA requests and how to be more transparent. Ironically, that is not always the case.

Examples of a lack of transparency are experienced almost every day by media organizations. Anyone who follows news knows it is important for information to be timely. The longer police agencies can delay the release of information, the less likely there will be a story running in the paper that would detail the information.

The FOIA law in Illinois allows adult mug shots to be released, however, police agencies do not typically release mug shots without it being requested. A gross example of this delay is that the Chicago Police Department waits four days to release any mug shot of a misdemeanor offender. This is done to discourage media organizations from running mug shots of misdemeanor offenders.

Let’s talk about why some police departments love to drag their feet on FOIA requests. Typically, elected officials encourage police departments to go as slow as possible when dealing with news organizations. Some political leaders believe any negative information released by police departments about their municipality or crime that took place within their jurisdiction is not favorable to the reputation of the community. I have even heard them argue that property values will decrease if criminal activity is released.

In some communities, open and transparent policing is just a catchphrase and not at all what those communities’ leaders espouse and live by. I am and have always been a strong advocate that all police records that can be released should be under Illinois law. If there are legitimate reasons to hold some information from the public for a period of time, then that should be done. But dragging your feet and making residents and news organizations wait weeks and weeks to get information is obstructive.

I believe you really cannot have it both ways. Police agencies are constantly issuing positive news releases hoping that news organizations will cover their successes. You cannot hide negative or unflattering information to those same news organizations. Open and transparent policing means just that – open and transparent. It does not mean open and transparent whenever we feel like it.

During my career as a police chief, there were some who believed I was way too open with the media and the public. I always released criminal information as a matter of policy and did not wait for news organizations or residents to ask us what happened. I took the initiative and released everything we could. After all, how do you expect residents to be able to make solid, informed safety decisions for themselves and their families without accurate information being released by the police department?

The days of waiting for news organizations and residents to request information from the police department should cease immediately. Police departments should actively and proactively put out the information in a timely fashion that provides open and transparent policing to everyone and better informs the community and public at large. Anything else is simply dishonest.

Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.