A Big Win for Police Accountability

Clinical Professor Craig Futterman had many people on his mind as he sat in Illinois Appeals Court in downtown Chicago on February 5. He thought about the clients of his Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project over the last 14 years, marginalized people who endured police harassment and brutality and had few, if any, opportunities for justice. He thought about the dozens of law students who have worked with him to try to change that.  

Two of them were standing in front of Futterman in court, presenting oral arguments before the three-judge appeals court. Saul Cohen, ’14, and Italia Patti, ’14, worked to persuade the justices that a writer represented by the clinic, Jamie Kalven, had the right under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to receive records related to police misconduct.

In an opinion filed March 10, the court agreed with them. And weeks later, Futterman still smiled broadly talking about it.

“I feel like a proud parent. They were nothing short of astounding,” Futterman said. “This is an historic ruling for transparency and police accountability.”

The First Division of the Illinois Appeals Court ruled in Kalven v. the City of Chicago that two types of records should be open to the public: complaints made against five specific officers with reputations for abusive behavior and so-called “repeater lists,” which are lists of the officers who receive the most misconduct complaints.

Kalven and the clinic first requested these documents in 2009, and the city refused. In circuit court, the judge agreed that the repeater lists should be released but not the misconduct records. After hearing from Cohen and Patti, the justices on the appellate court unanimously agreed that both types of records should be public. The city has announced its intention to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, but if the decision stands, misconduct reports concerning any officer should become public if requested under FOIA.

Cohen and Patti were stellar, said Deborah Pugh, ’05, an assistant appellate defender in the Office of the State Appellate Defender, which represents indigent defendants on appeal in the Illinois state courts. An alumna of the clinic, Pugh advised Futterman and the students before the oral arguments, which she attended.

“I’ve observed countless appellate and Illinois Supreme Court arguments, and the level of argument in Kalven was as high as anything I’ve seen,” she said. “The case had multiple levels of complexity, and the students knew the facts and the law completely. The city brought its A-game, and the students absolutely held their own. There is no way an observer would have guessed that these were law students, not lawyers.”

This decision has roots all the way back to Futterman’s founding of the clinic in 2000. Back then, Futterman and his students were working out of the now-demolished Stateway Gardens housing project, between 35th and 39th streets along State Street. The clinic was working to improve police response and accountability to the project and its residents, all poor and black. They documented many human rights abuses suffered at the hands of a small group of corrupt police officers nicknamed the “Skullcap Crew.” Residents said the Crew conducted illegal searches, planted false evidence, and beat people. One woman’s story was especially horrific; she said Crew members sexually assaulted her, threatened her life, and made her teenage son beat one of her neighbors for their amusement. Clinic students filed a federal civil rights suit on her behalf and ultimately secured a $150,000 settlement from the city.

In the course of litigating that case, the clinic gained access to police misconduct records, which were kept private by the city. The records included complaints filed against members of the Skullcap Crew and lists of the officers who were the subject of the most citizen complaints.

“This was information of incredible public importance,” Futterman said. A report prepared by the clinic revealed that the police department failed to address patterns of abuse. “The city let those few bad apples prey on the most vulnerable residents with impunity.”

Then, Kalven, son of longtime Law School Professor Harry Kalven, ’38, filed a motion to seek access to the records; media outlets including the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times and members of city council did the same. That case eventually made its way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judges ruled that these outside parties lacked standing to intervene in the case. However, the court explained that nothing about the protective orders in the federal case prevented Mr. Kalven from obtaining the records from the City through the Freedom of Information Act.  

When the City denied Kalven’s 2009 FOIA request, Futterman and his students filed suit in state court against the city on his behalf. They gathered evidence, wrote affidavits and briefs, researched endless documents, and put in thousands of hours of work over more than four years.

Once Cohen and Patti were selected to argue the case, Futterman, other Law School professors, and a number of practicing attorneys, including several alumni, worked closely with them to moot their arguments. When the time came, they were ready.

“There was a lot of pressure, given the importance of the case and the amount of work put into it by a lot of people over the years,” Cohen said. “It was a really exciting and valuable experience, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.” (Cohen and Patti wrote a firsthand account of their work on this case for The Advocate, the clinic blog, where you can also read media coverage of the case.)

“Working on this case has been my favorite part of law school,” said Patti, who was the first person on the team to read the opinion after picking it up at the court. “Reading through the opinion and realizing we’d won was such an incredible feeling, and spreading the news to everyone else was even more exciting. (Professor Futterman) gave us such brilliant guidance and his incredible teaching and mentorship is a huge part of why law students were able to confidently and successfully handle the oral argument.”

Jordan Wilkow, ’12, worked on the case for five of his nine quarters at the Law School, when it was in circuit court. Now a law clerk for Northern District of Illinois Judge James B. Zagel, he attended oral arguments as well.

“My jaw dropped, frankly. While I was optimistic, I wasn’t expecting such a resounding victory,” he said. “It was incredibly gratifying. Though I’ve graduated, the arguments themselves haven’t changed. I’m so glad everyone’s years of hard work have paid off, because this is so important.” 

Indeed, Pugh, the assistant appellate defender, said the decision, if it stands, will benefit both citizens and police. “If the increased transparency leads to stronger measures against police abuse, citizens will have greater confidence in police, which should make relations between police and the communities they serve much better. I circulated the decision at my office, and attorneys here immediately recognized the importance of the decision.”