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Thursday, May 2, 2013 08:50 am

Ready, set, shred

City destroys police records

Springfield city council members want answers about the shredding of dozens of police department disciplinary files last week. This comes in the wake of an unexpected change in policy that shortened the retention period for internal affairs files from five years to four.

The union that represents police officers is lauding the policy shift and hoping for further changes that will result in even more disciplinary files being destroyed so that they cannot be released pursuant to public records requests.

At a press conference Wednesday, police chief Robert Williams justified the policy shift as “efficient” for record-keeping purposes.

In a memo to the rank-and-file, police union president Don Edwards last week wrote that the union suggested that the city start destroying internal affairs files so that they can’t be made public. And a week ago, Edwards and Williams signed a memorandum of understanding that states that shortening the retention period for internal affairs files was “mutually beneficial” to the city and the union.

“The MOU is only the first step in attempting to improve the expungement periods,” Edwards wrote. “We expect to discuss even further lowering of the times which will only serve to keep our personnel files away from those that would intend to embarrass us.”

Under the new policy, internal affairs files on investigations that resulted in any discipline more serious than a reprimand will be destroyed after four years instead of five. According to Edwards’ memo, the city just a few months ago informed the union that it would begin releasing internal affairs files in response to public records requests, which prompted the union to suggest that files be destroyed. But the city recently reversed course, Edwards wrote, and has now said that it will go to court to fight requests for internal affairs files. City attorney Mark Cullen could not be reached for comment, nor could Mayor Mike Houston.

City council members blasted the policy change, saying that they can’t see how destroying internal affairs records benefits the city, as stated in the memorandum of understanding signed last week without council knowledge. They also say that the mayor should have consulted the council before agreeing to reduce the retention period for the records.

“I’m stuck on the phrase ‘those who would seek to embarrass us,’” Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson said. “If there is something in the files, they (police officers) have done the embarrassing, no one else has.”

Simpson said the city should not have changed the policy without council approval.

“This is big,” Simpson said. “We should have known. … What I find problematic is, this was not run by the city council.”

Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards also said he wants to know how the policy change benefits the city.

“To me, that’s a valid question,” Edwards said.

With Williams expected to retire by year’s end, Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said that the policy change should have been approved in advance by the mayor.

“If the mayor didn’t agree with this, why is the police chief setting policy when he’s about to leave?” McMenamin said. “Any change in policy should be for the benefit of the city and the police department’s operations and for the citizens of Springfield. … Whenever you shorten a (document) destruction period, it looks suspect. I just don’t know what to make of this.”

McMenamin said that disciplinary records should be kept as long as possible so that the city can make informed decisions on promotions and other personnel matters.

Springfield attorney Don Craven, who represents a police department employee, Wendell Banks, who recently requested internal affairs files on a 2008 incident involving deputy chief Cliff Buscher, said that he is concerned that the city might have destroyed the files.

The city on April 8 refused to release the bulk of the Buscher file requested by Banks, who has 60 days under state law to appeal the decision to withhold files to the state attorney general. The law also gives him the right to sue the city to force release of the records under the Freedom of Information Act.

“As the city would have it, they have a FOIA request and they don’t want to turn the records over, they destroy them,” Craven said.

Buscher, who declined comment, was demoted in 2008 and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after authorities in Missouri said that he fired his service weapon while intoxicated during a fishing trip with other police department employees.

Attorney John Myers said that he also believes that the city destroyed the files on Buscher after they were requested by Calvin Christian, a city resident who has been battling the city in court for internal affairs files. The day after the policy change, Christian last week received a letter from the city stating that the city had no such records, even though Banks earlier in the month received some records and a letter stating that the city had others but would not release them. Christian had requested the same records as Banks, Myers said.

“I think the documents were destroyed,” Myers said.

The courts haven’t proven much help in getting internal affairs records from Springfield police, even though the state Freedom of Information Act says that judges are supposed to expedite public records cases. While Christian in the summer of 2011 won a lawsuit against the city and obtained copies of some internal affairs files, a second lawsuit filed by him for more files in November of 2011 has stalled. There has been no movement since May of last year, when Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt heard arguments and took the matter under advisement.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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