Illinois state police routinely turn down requests for public information, whether from grieving relatives, insurance companies deciding whether to pay a claim or even other police officers doing research, a review shows.
The policy extends to withholding reports on murders that occurred decades ago on the grounds that even dead people have a right to privacy, The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reported this week.
The agency sometimes protects its own privacy, too. It waited five months before finally disclosing how much had been spent on lawyers handling an employment discrimination case against the agency.
State police also fail to keep track of all information requests and how they were handled.
In 2006, for example, state police received nearly 700 requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. They granted 175 requests, denied 146 others and reported in 81 cases that they couldn’t find the document being sought. But in more than 200 cases, there was no record of whether state police responded at all.
State police officials would not talk to the Journal-Register about the details of its findings. But they did say the agency tries to follow the law on releasing documents.
“Can I tell you it’s worked perfectly every time?” chief counsel Keith Jensen said. “I can’t tell you that.”
Jensen suggested the agency could be sued for violating someone’s privacy if they released records. Asked how often such lawsuits had been filed, Jensen said he didn’t know. The agency never provided a number.
State police spokesman Scott Compton said the agency strives to balance the public’s right to know against the need to protect people from invasions of privacy and, potentially, even violence. But he would not discuss the issue in detail.
State law assumes that all government documents are public unless they fall into certain special categories, such as a government employee’s personnel file or police records revealing confidential informants. Officials can black out sensitive information and still release the rest of a document.
It isn’t just reporters being kept in the dark. Lawyers, insurance companies, crime victims and others outnumber journalists by about 20 to 1 in making FOIA requests to the state police.
Catherine Rhoads is one of those people. She wants details on her brother’s suicide in the Livingston County Jail, hoping that the information might shed light on why he did it and provide some closure for the family.
Following a coroner’s inquest, a state police investigator agreed to meet with Rhoads last June. He brought along a 400-page file.
“He wouldn’t even let me touch it,” recalled Rhoads, who lives in Chatsworth. “I got to read through some of it, but only what they wanted me to see. He’d open it up to a certain page and say ‘See?”’
Rhoads said she was told she’d have to submit a formal request and pay 25 cents a page if she wanted a copy of the report. So she sent in a check for $100 and waited.
After weeks passed with no response, she said she called to ask about her request. Police soon returned her check and sent her about 20 pages, mostly letters that her brother had written from jail that she already had.
“The rest, they told me, wasn’t my business,” she said. “It made me think they were hiding something.”
Howard Williams, police chief in San Marcos, Texas, was turned down when he asked for records on a man who died after being shocked with a stun gun. Williams is writing a book on such deaths.
And state police said it would violate personal privacy to release information about the shotgun death of Peoria businessman George McNear, even though McNear was killed in 1947 and Peoria police were more than willing to release their records.
“It’s just obstructionist _ either that, or just lazy,” said the man who sought the records, amateur historian Richard Simpson. “Everybody’s dead. Would they have privacy concerns with Jesse James or John Wilkes Booth?”
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