Editorial: A long way to go to have effective FOIA
When the Illinois State Police released a full copy of the arrest report for Springfield parks director Mike Stratton last week, attorney Don Craven said it may be a new hour for public access in Illinois but not a new day.
The only way it will be a new day is if the ISP and other local police agencies (Springfield and Sangamon County, we’re looking at you) comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act in a timely way, without a fight and without Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office having to write two letters.
The only way it will be a new day is if a private citizen who does not buy ink by the barrel or server space by the terabyte can go to the state police and get such a document without having to navigate a web of exemptions and other obstructions.
“For police agencies across the state, they need to take notice that full field reports in routine traffic and criminal matters can be released and should be released and must be released,” said Craven, an expert on the state’s public access law.
The dispute illustrated the limits of Gov. Pat Quinn’s open-government rhetoric when lawyers and police get involved.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing,” said Quinn spokesman Bob Reed said after the records were released. “And when the attorney general’s office sanctioned the move, we moved ahead.
“There is a balance here between providing the information and protecting the rights of others. There will always be cases that require additional review. But this administration leans toward disclosure.”
For our part, there was never a question that the state Freedom of Information Act allows for the release of such a basic document, one that would simply be handed over upon request in other states. Lawyers at all levels of Illinois government either forget or simply ignore that exemptions to the FOIA law are optional.
Public officials in Illinois need to have the same attitude toward public access as Robert Sweeney, the late chief judge of the Maryland District Court, had.
“When confronted with a desk sergeant or police spokesman convinced that the public had no right to know who had shot whom in the 1400 block of North Bentalou Street, I would dial the judge,” David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun police reporter and creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” recently wrote in The Washington Post.
“And then I would stand, secretly delighted, as yet another police officer learned … the fundamentals of Maryland’s public information law…
“Delays of even 24 hours? Nope, not acceptable. Requiring written notification from the newspaper? No, the judge would explain. Even ordinary citizens have a right to those reports.
“‘What do you need the 30 days for?’” the judge once asked a police spokesman on speakerphone. ‘We may need to redact sensitive information,’ the spokesman offered.
“‘You can’t redact anything. Do you hear me? Everything in an initial incident report is public. If the report has been filed by the officer, then give it to the reporter tonight or face contempt charges tomorrow.’”
Illinois government officials are a long way from having that kind of viewpoint about public records. That’s why the state must pass meaningful reforms to Illinois’ FOIA law, ones that make it clear what is a public record, carry stiff penalties for noncompliance and ensure that getting records is easier and faster.