SPRINGFIELD, IL – Old Springfield police internal affairs files that should have been destroyed under a union contract are nevertheless public documents and should be released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled Monday.
Schmidt lifted a temporary restraining order that had kept the files from being disclosed, and rejected a union argument that the mere release would cause irreparable harm.
“The fact the public becomes aware that a particular police officer was subject to an internal affairs investigation is not irreparable harm,” Schmidt wrote in Monday’s order. The judge noted that the Police Benevolent & Protective Assocation Unit 5 argument to keep the files under wraps included an analogy that once released, files would be like toothpaste that can’t be put back in the tube.
“The Illinois Freedom of Information Act guarantees citizens the right to see that toothpaste, taste it, and determine whether or not we like it,” Schmidt wrote.
Ron Stone, lawyer for the police union, said Monday afternoon that he has 30 days to file a notice of appeal, so he’ll be checking with union’s president to determine the next step. He did note that the files in question should have been destroyed under the union’s contract and a memorandum of understanding that said internal affairs files should be kept by the city for only four years. The contract had set the time limit at five years before it was reduced by one year in the April 25 memorandum.
“I’m disappointed that the city has chosen for the last 13 years to disregard the clear provisions of our collective bargaining agreement,” Stone said. “The record indicates we have internal affairs files dating back to 2001, and that’s inexcusable.”
Don Craven, a lawyer representing individuals and news organizations with pending requests for the documents, said Schmidt’s ruling means the city should turn the records over.
“All they have to do now is comply with the act,” Craven said.
Schmidt’s Monday order said that it is “well established law” that police internal affairs files are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. He also rejected the argument from the union that its collective bargaining agreement with the city supercedes other laws. He noted that the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act says bargaining can occur concerning working conditions “not specifically provided for in any other law or not specifically in violation of the provisions of any law.”
Schmidt wrote that the union’s argument, “taken to its logical conclusion would allow parties to a collective bargaining agreement the luxury of contracting away any state law they deemed offensive. Nothing in the Public Labor Relations act can be read to suggest the legislature intended to permit this absurd result.”
There was no word late Monday from city of Springfield officials on their next step.
Some of the files in question involve current or former officers including Ricky Davis, Renatta Frazier, Ralph Harris, Angela Westlake, Mike Brown, Jeff Coker, Cliff Bell, Jennifer Wallace, Kevin Donaldson and Justin McElroy.
Those seeking to access the records include reporter Deana Stroisch and The State Journal-Register; reporter Bruce Rushton and the Illinois Times; reporter Vince DeMentri and Sinclair Broadcasting, parent company of WICS-TV; and Calvin Christian III, whose earlier request for internal affairs files was pending when city officials shredded some files under the April memorandum of understanding.