Sunday, May 5, 2013 06:42 am
City council mulls criminal investigation
Attorney general may be asked to probe cops
Springfield aldermen are considering whether to ask attorney general Lisa Madigan to investigate the shredding of police internal affairs files to determine whether the cops broke the law.
Under state law, public records cannot be destroyed without approval from a local records commission, and violations of the law can be prosecuted as felonies. Former Sangamon County coroner Susan Boone found that out firsthand in 2010 when state police served a search warrant on her office during an investigation to determine whether she had illegally destroyed records.
Now, Springfield aldermen are expected to introduce a resolution on Tuesday calling on Madigan to investigate the recent shredding of 73 internal affairs files so that they could not be made public in response to requests made under the state Freedom of Information Act.
A final vote is not expected until the May 21 council meeting. In the meantime, the council has scheduled a Tuesday vote on an emergency resolution to prevent any further destruction of records.
Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards said that a resolution calling for Madigan to investigate isn’t being considered for emergency passage because he and other backers aren’t certain they have the necessary eight votes to expedite the matter. He acknowledged that Madigan doesn’t need the council’s OK to conduct an investigation, and he also said that any citizen has the right to ask the attorney general to take action.
“I’m wanting us (the council) to all be in,” Edwards said. “If we’re not all in, maybe that phone call (to Madigan) will be made.”
Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman said that Madigan’s office is the proper agency to investigate the police department’s destruction of files because Madigan has sufficient staff and knowledge of the law.
“It would obviously be a conflict of interest for the city of Springfield or the police department to investigate itself,” Cahnman said. “The idea was to let somebody with expertise in this area and who’s unbiased and objective to take a look at it and let the chips fall where they may.”
During a committee-of-the-whole meeting last week, Cahnman, Edwards, Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin and Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson criticized the police for shortening the department’s document retention period for internal affairs files from five to four years on April 25 and shredding 73 files that same day. Police chief Robert Williams acknowledged that the policy was changed so that the department wouldn’t have to respond to FOIA requests for internal affairs files. He told council members that destroying files was a matter of efficiency.
That didn’t fly with Edwards.
“I think what you just said to us was all smoke and mirrors,” Edwards told the chief. “You can talk efficiency all day long. It’s almost criminal, chief, and you’re the police chief. … We’ve got a real problem. I don’t want to hear about efficiency when we’re talking about the right thing to do. This was absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
Not everyone agreed. Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner defended Williams, noting that the chief says that he checked with a city lawyer before shredding records, so any questions about whether the law was broken should be directed at the city’s legal department.
“I agree with the police chief that he has every right to run his department in the way that he sees fit,” Turner said. “He did everything that he was supposed to do. I think all of these questions that everyone has directed toward the police chief need to be directed toward the corporation counsel.”
Simpson last week said that the council needs to take action, but she wasn’t more specific.
“The ten of us need to be in unison and do something about this,” Simpson said.
If Williams was hoping to reduce FOIA requests by destroying records, he didn’t succeed. Since the April 25 shredding became public knowledge, the city has received at least eight FOIA requests for internal affairs records that may have been destroyed and other documents pertaining to the change of policy. Those requests include disciplinary records for deputy chief Cliff Buscher, who was suspended and demoted in 2008 after firing his service weapon while drunk during a fishing trip in Missouri. Originally charged with a felony in connection with the incident, Buscher pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He is now the second-highest ranking officer in the department.
The internal affairs file on the 2008 incident involving Buscher was, apparently, one of the records that was shredded. Calvin Christian, a city resident who had requested the file before it was apparently destroyed, sued the city last week, alleging violations of FOIA and the state Local Records Act.
“I’m very disappointed in the police department destroying files when there is an active FOIA request for those same files,” McMenamin said. “It reflects an abuse of power.”
McMenamin said that the council should contact law enforcement in Missouri and request all files on the incident involving Buscher that led to criminal charges.
“I’ve lost confidence in the command staff of the police department,” McMenamin said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.