In refusing to turn over footage, city hall told a whopper to the media and, by extension, the public. It is an all-too-familiar story when it comes to the city lying and obfuscating and forgetting basic public responsibilities when it comes to the performance of those who are sworn to serve and protect. In its lawsuit filed last week, Illinois Times seeks the video, legal expenses and a fine, which the newspaper will donate to a worthy cause if a fine is levied. Lawsuits stemming from the city’s apparent belief that the police department is a proprietary enterprise immune from transparency requirements have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2004, when former officer Renatta Frazier collected $850,000 from taxpayers to settle a lawsuit that included a claim that the department had smeared her by withholding information.
Frazier’s path to a six-figure payday began when police, rather than release reports, read versions over the phone to the media, omitting the fact that the accused officer could not, contrary to allegations that languished for nearly a year in internal affairs, have prevented a rape because she was dispatched after the fact. The police report that contained the truth was locked away in a safe, according to the lawsuit that alleged at least a dozen department officials knew the truth but remained silent while the media, trusting police, reported on an investigation into trumped-up charges that were easily disproven.
There is also Shredgate, which culminated with the city paying more than $100,000 in 2014 to settle a lawsuit after internal affairs reports that had been requested under the state Freedom of Information Act were shredded rather than turned over. Last fall, a top police official was less-than-truthful with Illinois Times, saying that the names of those arrested in connection with a gun shop burglary could not be disclosed due to statutes protecting the names of juveniles, even as a 19-year-old suspect sat in jail, charged as an adult.
Someone is fibbing again. The city last week told Illinois Times that video footage of Officer John Shea shooting Daniel Rogers on Jan. 23 could not be released because Shea had not been interviewed by investigators. But Illinois State Police, who have been put in charge of the investigation, told the newspaper that Shea, in fact, had been interviewed. State law says that public records, including videos, cannot be withheld simply because an investigation is pending. Don’t believe it? Ask Chicago police, who were compelled, at the barrel of a lawsuit, to release a video of Laquan McDonald being gunned down in 2014. After a judge ruled against the city, and on the eve of the video’s release, the officer who killed McDonald was charged with murder.
We do not know enough to know whether Shea acted properly or improperly in shooting Rogers. That is beside the point. A life was taken in the name of every person who lives in Springfield, and every person who lives in Springfield deserves to know as much as possible about this tragedy. The city withholding video in the event that the shooting was justified would be, arguably, more disturbing than the city refusing to release records if the shooting wasn’t warranted. Secrecy to cover up wrongdoing, while not justifiable, at least comes with a motive. Secrecy for the sake of secrecy is the mark of a government that has forgotten basic tenets of democracy. It is far past time for Mayor Jim Langfelder to start living up to campaign promises about instilling transparency in his administration. He should begin by figuring out who’s been lying and showing them the door.
As troubling as anything else in this affair is the stance of Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser, who is rumored to be angling for appointment to the post of U.S. attorney for central Illinois. Milhiser has countenanced the refusal to release video footage of the Rogers shooting by telling the State Journal-Register that disclosure would interfere with law enforcement proceedings and affect eyewitness accounts. Please. If investigators in Springfield haven’t interviewed witnesses by now, three weeks after the fact, then Mayberry must be short a few Barneys. As for law enforcement proceedings, video is routinely released throughout the nation before prosecutors make charging decisions or internal affairs investigations are complete.
The Freedom of Information Act, and legal precedent, is clear: If you can’t come up with a sensible reason for not releasing records, then you’re just making a lot of noise. So far, it’s been noise.
Release the video. That’s the easy part. More difficult is figuring out how to restore trust in city government that has shown, time and again, a Trumpian view of the truth, and, somehow, it always seems to involve the police. Reporters shouldn’t have to look outside if a cop says it’s raining, but that’s where we’re at when it comes to Springfield’s finest.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.