August 19, 2019

Judge Orders Chicago Police Department to Comply with Journalist’s FOIA Request for Officer Photos

CHICAGO – In a blow to the Chicago Police Department’s ongoing efforts to block journalists from reporting on police actions, a Cook County Circuit Court Judge has ruled in favor of a veteran journalist who sued the Department for denying his request for photographs of Chicago police officers under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The suit was brought by the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of Rob Warden, Co-Founder of Injustice Watch, a not-for-profit journalism organization focused on exposing institutional problems within the criminal justice system. Mr. Warden is also the Executive Director Emeritus of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In his suit, Warden objected to the CPD’s long-standing, blanket policy of denying journalists’ requests for officer photographs.

“The purpose of my FOIA request was to further my reporting activities, and to ensure that residents of Chicago received important and accurate information they are entitled to in order to hold CPD and its officers accountable for their actions,” said Warden. “The denial of my request would undermine the ability of news organizations in general to do their jobs.”

Although CPD claimed that releasing the photos could invade officers’ privacy and even endanger their safety, the judge’s order noted that CPD regularly publishes photographs of officers whose actions are deemed to show CPD in a positive light. In fact, over one four-month period, CPD published 300 pages of photographs and names of its officers on its Facebook page.

Given the inherently public nature of police work, the judge ruled that the potential invasion of privacy in this situation was minimal at best and was far outweighed by the public interest in disclosure.

“For many years, the Police Department has taken pains to keep officers’ photographs under wraps, claiming officer safety requires it.  In this case, we showed that the CPD has no evidence to support that claim.  When there’s a story about police misconduct, the public should be able to see a picture of the accused officer.  With this ruling, that should happen going forward,” said Locke Bowman, attorney for Mr. Warden and Executive Director of the MacArthur Justice Center.

In a claim the judge found “utterly lacking in foundation”, CPD claimed that “criminal elements” might somehow use facial recognition technology to create a searchable database to target officers. The judge noted that CPD claimed, without evidence or expert testimony, that the popular singer Taylor Swift has created a similar database to keep stalkers out of her concerts.

Despite CPD’s opposition, the judge points out that there is no evidence of any harm befalling any officer due to his/her photograph being released to the public – including such notorious officers as former Commander Jon Burge, who was accused of torturing more than 200 criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991 in order to force confessions.

The Judge gave CPD 21 days to turn over the photographs to Mr. Warden.