Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called on the city’s independent watchdog to look into secret criminal background checks by Chicago police of speakers at public Police Board meetings after documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune show the practice went much further back than city officials previously acknowledged.
The Tribune first reported in a front-page story in July that documents obtained under a public records request showed the Police Department gathered information since at least January 2018 on nearly 60 people in advance of their speaking at monthly meetings of the city’s police disciplinary panel. At the time, a police spokesman said the background checks went back to at least 2013.
But a broader public records request by the Tribune shows that the practice dated even further back, to at least the summer of 2006. During the last 13 years, the Police Department conducted criminal background investigations and internet searches on more than 300 citizens who signed up to speak before the Police Board, according to the newly released records.
A concerned Lightfoot told the Tribune she had asked Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office to review the origins and scope of the practice in light of the new details.
"As I said when I first found out about this, this is a huge mistake,“ Lightfoot said. “We need to get to the bottom of what the full scope of this process was to truly understand it and I think give confidence that it can’t be repeated again.”
A day after the Tribune first broke the existence of the background checks, the Police Department offered a rare public apology.
But officials haven’t been able to answer key questions about the practice, including when it began, why it was done and what police did with the information.
A letter by city Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner asked Ferguson’s office to conduct “a thorough investigation” into whether Police Department employees improperly accessed confidential law enforcement databases in carrying out the background searches.
“While Mayor Lightfoot directed that the practice cease, upon its discovery by her, the recent discrepancy in time frame is of concern to the Mayor,” Flessner wrote in the letter dated Tuesday. “... Understanding the full historical background of this practice is necessary to determine if additional intervention is needed or disciplinary action.”
The records obtained by the Tribune date to August 2006 but don’t include profiles from every single monthly Police Board meeting.
Police compiled profiles of citizens who signed up to address the Police Board by searching at least one internal department database to determine if speakers had arrest or prison records, warrants outstanding for their arrest or were registered sex offenders.
The newly released documents showed that police even sometimes searched voter registration records. In some cases, the profiles also included photos of speakers, either from various websites or police mug shots.
In addition to running criminal background on speakers, police also searched profiles and comments on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Those subjected to the background checks included activists, a police union official, relatives of people killed in high-profile police shootings, a woman who told the Police Board she was sexually assaulted by an officer years earlier, a religious leader and attorneys.
At the time the Tribune first disclosed the criminal background checks, Lightfoot said she had been unaware of the practice when she chaired the Police Board before her run for mayor.
Describing herself as “furious and incredulous,” she told the Tribune she had ordered an immediate stop to the background checks and said the Police Department owed the public an apology.
That same day, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson avoided answering a reporter’s question about whether the background checks should have taken place.
“To be quite honest, nobody did anything with it,” he said.
The next day, the department issued its apology.
At first, the police said the practice went back to at least 2013, but that was because a group of detectives still active with the department had been performing the checks since then, spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a recent interview.
But the department found the older records through an “archival email search,” he said in a later email.
Reached by the Tribune, several past police superintendents denied knowledge of the background checks even though they regularly attended Police Board meetings.
Jody Weis, who headed the department from 2008 to 2011, said he was unaware of the practice.
Philip Cline, the superintendent from 2003 to 2007, could not explain how or why it might have started up during his tenure.
His predecessor, Terry Hillard, who headed the department from 1998 until 2003, could not be reached for comment, but attorney Thomas Needham, who was the department’s general counsel and chief of staff for part of Hillard’s tenure, said he had never heard of the background checks.
As the Tribune has previously reported, Garry McCarthy, the superintendent from 2011 to 2015, said he did not remember ordering the background checks but wholeheartedly backed the practice, citing security concerns even though Police Board attendees must pass through security screenings at police headquarters and more than a dozen officers stand guard during the meetings
Mark Iris, who served for two decades as the Police Board’s executive director until 2004, said he was also unaware of the checks. His successor, Max Caproni, who still holds the post, previously told the Tribune he knew of the background checks but didn’t review the reports in detail or use them “for any purpose.”
Critics of the practice said the disclosure that police had been conducting background checks longer than previously known raises more questions about the searches and how all that information was used.
With the background checks dating to at least 2006, Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU of Illinois’ police practices project, expressed concern that the practice was underway while Chicago police were at the same time under a court-ordered consent decree from the 1980s to ensure the department wasn’t spying on citizens.
Sheley noted that city officials argued for years they weren’t violating the “Red Squad” decree and that for a time in the 2000s it was the Police Board that was tasked with ensuring the Police Department complied with the order.
The background checks violated “the spirit” of that decree, Sheley said.
Christy Lopez, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who helped lead a yearlong investigation of the Police Department after video of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald rocked Chicago, called the background checks “utterly inappropriate.”
“Fundamentally, what’s wrong with it is that it has the potential to intimidate people from voicing their concerns about policing,” Lopez told the Tribune.
Martinez Sutton, whose sister Rekia Boyd was killed in 2012 in a controversial shooting by an off-duty Chicago police detective, said he was troubled on learning that the department had checked on his background before speaking before the Police Board.
“I’m fighting against police brutality due to what they did to Rekia and everything. So you find out officers or whoever are investigating your background, that makes you think about all sorts of privacy issues,” Sutton said. “... What about retaliation?”
Serethea and Ronald Reid echoed those concerns on learning from the Tribune that the department had prepared profiles on the couple for their appearance at a 2011 Police Board meeting.
The Reids, who run the Central Austin Neighborhood Association, have spoken at Police Board meetings over the years to complain about slow police response times to 911 calls in the heavily African American West Side community where they live. Their organization has a pending lawsuit against the city calling on the Police Department to allocate an appropriate number of officers to each of its 22 districts to ensure comparable emergency response times.
Ronald Reid’s profile contained 10 arrest records for people who share his name, but none of those records involved him.
At his home last week, Reid said he tried to rationalize the background checks at first, thinking maybe the police feared an “active shooter.” But then he remembered the heavy security that the public must go through to attend the Police Board meetings.
“Why are you collecting this data? What do you intend to do with it? What’s the purpose?” Reid asked. “The only thing that makes sense is, you know, we’re going to use this to retaliate, and that’s extremely disturbing to us.”
Even though the Police Department has discontinued the background checks and apologized, Reid doesn’t think that’s enough.
“My first feeling was: ‘What the hell? Are we in a police state? What’s going on here?'” he said. “These are people that supposedly we’re working with to make the city a better place.”