City sued again
Springfield faces lawsuit over police records
The destruction of more than 70 Springfield police internal affairs files has landed the city in court.
Calvin Christian, a city resident who has twice sued the city in recent years seeking internal affairs files, sued again on Thursday, claiming that the city violated both the state Freedom of Information Act and the Local Records Act when it destroyed internal affairs files after police chief Rob Williams a week ago signed a memorandum of understanding with the police union that reduced the retention period for such files from five years to four.
Under heat from city council members who say that they should have been consulted, Williams has said that the policy was changed because police have been inundated with requests for files that were interfering with keeping operations efficient. That’s irrelevant, according to Don Craven, Christian’s lawyer.
For one thing, documents can’t be destroyed without approval from a local records commission set up under the Local Records Act that gives the commission authority to decide how long records should be retained, Craven said. For another, the Freedom of Information Act states that providing records to the public upon request is a primary function of government regardless of cost.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday in Sangamon County Circuit Court, Christian claims the city has illegally destroyed 73 police internal affairs files, including one that documents an incident in the spring of 2008 in which deputy chief Cliff Buscher pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after firing his service weapon while intoxicated during a fishing trip in Missouri with other department employees. Buscher was demoted as a result but has since worked his way up to become the department’s second-highest ranking officer, just under Chief Williams.
The city on April 8 turned over part of the internal-affairs file on Buscher to Wendell Banks, a department employee who was on the Missouri trip with the deputy chief in 2008. When Christian requested the same records, the city gave itself a five-day extension to respond, then told him that no such records existed.
That’s both bad faith and evidence that the Buscher file has been destroyed, Craven says.
Given that the city had already responded to a request for the Buscher file from Banks, there was no reason that they needed an extension to respond to a request for the same files from Christian, Craven said. In a letter to Christian invoking an extension, the city cited sections of the Freedom of Information Act that allow public bodies to extend deadlines, but Craven isn’t convinced the reasons were bona fide.
“On its face, they mouthed the right words,” Craven said. “It just tastes funny.”
Craven also noted that city’s contract with the police union took effect in December, less than four months after Williams signed the memorandum of understanding that changed the document retention period on the grounds that the change benefited both the union and the city. He also said that there was no need to destroy files. The city, Craven said, could have retained the records, even if disciplinary cases older than four years could not be considered when deciding what discipline to take when officers engage in wrongdoing.
Craven also said that Buscher is a manager, not a rank-and-file member of the union bargaining unit, so there would have been no reason to destroy the internal-affairs file concerning the 2008 incident under the memorandum of understanding signed last week by Williams and the president of the police officers’ union.
Neither Buscher nor other city officials could be reached for comment.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org