City watchdog says CPD ‘ran afoul of laws and regulations’ with secret background checks on citizens

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A two-year inspector general’s investigation into who authorized Chicago police to secretly conduct background checks on people who signed up to speak at public meetings and why it was done has ended without an answer, officials said Friday.

But the probe did reveal that the department accessed a state-regulated law enforcement database to obtain information about the speakers who signed up to speak at monthly Chicago Police Board meetings. It is illegal for police to access that database — the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, or LEADS — unless it’s for legitimate police business.

The IG concluded that the department did not follow “laws and regulations” on how those databases are to be used for the background checks, which were first exposed by the Chicago Tribune over two years ago.

The office issued recommendations to remind the department — under a federally mandated consent decree to improve its policing practices — about consequences for misusing its databases.

“This practice raised the specter of infringement of the First Amendment rights of members of the public who chose to speak at Police Board meetings, ran afoul of laws and regulations regarding use of CPD databases, and strained public confidence in both CPD and the Police Board,” the inspector general’s office said in a statement linked to the report.

The Tribune reported in July 2019 that Chicago police compiled profiles of citizens who signed up to speak at Police Board meetings by searching at least one internal Police Department database to determine if speakers had arrest or prison records, warrants outstanding for their arrest or if they were registered sex offenders.

Police sometimes searched voter registration records, as well as the person’s profiles and comments on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In some cases, the profiles also included photos of speakers, either from various websites or police mug shots.

Those subjected to the background checks included activists, a police union official, relatives of people killed in police shootings, a woman who told the Police Board she was sexually assaulted by an officer years earlier, a religious leader and attorneys.

The Tribune eventually learned the practice had been going on since 2006 and affected more than 300 citizens who signed up to speak at the board’s meetings, most of which took place at Chicago police headquarters on the South Side.

When the Tribune uncovered what was happening, current and past Police Board members condemned it and said they had no idea that it had occurred. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois also criticized the practice.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who headed the Police Board during some of the time the background checks took place, ordered an immediate stop to such background checks. She condemned the background checks as “just stupid” and said the Police Department, which issued a rare apology for carrying them out, has “to own this.”

Last summer, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a measure that makes it illegal for police in Illinois to use LEADS to conduct criminal background checks on citizens who sign up to speak at any public meetings statewide. The measure — known as the Empowering Public Participation Act — was sponsored by state Rep. Kam Buckner and state Sen. Robert Peters, both Chicago Democrats.

The law, however, allows checks to be made if police have a “reasonable” belief that there’s a chance of criminal conduct or jeopardized security at the meeting. The law also does not apply to anyone who speaks at public meetings while being considered for a job by the agency holding the meeting.

Chicago’s inspector general’s office revealed in its investigation that “neither CPD nor the Police Board could account for who initiated the practice or for what purpose, beyond nonspecific security concerns regarding visitors” to police headquarters.

The IG’s office was also “unable to determine when the practice began or at whose direction,” its report states.

According to the IG’s investigation, a Police Board employee would email the names of citizens who signed up to speak at its meetings to a group of about 20 people beforehand. Using that list, the Police Department’s Bureau of Detectives would conduct the background checks on the speakers.

The IG’s investigation showed “assigned detectives were not provided with any guidance specifying the objectives for running these checks, for whom the checks were being run, or otherwise directing that analysis be performed with criteria for such analysis.”

In addition to LEADS, the checks included “open source” searches, which includes internet searches for newspaper articles or social media presences, and CPD’s own internal searches on its Citizen Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting, or CLEAR, database, the IG’s office said.

The speaker profiles would then be emailed to numerous Police Department employees, from rank-and-file officers to top brass, as well as others outside the department, including personnel from the Police Board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a city agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct.

The inspector general’s office made several recommendations to ensure the practice is stopped, including updating its directives to comport with the new state law signed by Pritzker; state clearly in its policies that police could face disciplinary infractions or criminal charges for misusing police databases; and incorporate “permissible and impermissible uses” of Police Department databases in its officers’ training.

The Police Department, in response, told the IG it would incorporate its recommendations into its policies “where deemed appropriate” and agreed to apply them to the officers’ training, according to the IG’s report.

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