Research was a critical part of our campaign, and we used every tool available to us to get the information we needed to tell our story, expose what the City was doing, and stop construction of the cop academy. The Freedom of Information Act was one of those tools, and on this page you will find the story of our FOIA lawsuit, some of the legal materials associated with the lawsuit, the documents we finally received from the city when we won, and resources for how to use FOIA for your own campaigns and efforts.
#NoCopAcademy v. CITY OF CHICAGO
NEW VIDEO: The story of #NoCopAcademy’s FOIA Lawsuit against the City of Chicago
#NoCopAcademy researchers and organizers filed multiple FOIA requests from city agencies, including the Mayor’s Department, in the weeks after we learned of their declaration that they would build a $95 million dollar cop academy on the Westside of Chicago. We wanted to know who was involved in planning the cop academy, how they had determined a price-tag of $95 million, and more. We were met with frequent and staunch denials, which was no surprise given that the Emanuel administration was intent on keeping the public out of the process from the very beginning. In March of 2018, during a week of action during youth organizers’ Spring Break from Chicago Public Schools which included a day-long die-in in City Hall, #NoCopAcademy sued the Mayor’s Office in order to get access to more of the initial planning documents via FOIA.
The Freedom of Information Act means that government agencies are required by law to reply to requests for information from the public, though many agencies regularly do not comply with FOIA law or highly redact the materials they make available. Several common exemptions that allow government agencies to withhold information from the public include documents that are in “draft” form. For example, while meeting minutes are subject to FOIA, draft agendas for meetings may frequently be exempted because they reveal ‘deliberation’ prior to a decision, which FOIA exemptions protect.
The #NoCopAcademy FOIA lawsuit was centered around whether or not materials requested from the Mayor’s Office after the press conference announcing the Mayor’s intention to build the cop academy on July 3, 2017 were subject to FOIA. The attorneys for the Mayor argued that because all decisions regarding the cop academy had not yet been made (even as late as January 2020), the documents requested still fell under the “deliberative process” exemption – aka they were drafts that the public was not entitled to. Our attorneys with the People’s Law Office argued that because the Mayor was able to announce to the press many details which had already been decided about the creation of the cop academy, including where it would be built, how much it would cost, and what would be included in the facility – the Mayor’s decision-making in the process had to have happened before said press conference on July 3rd, rendering all materials after that date subject to release by FOIA. Ultimately, Judge Sophia Hall ruled in favor of #NoCopAcademy, which meant that several hundred pages of documents from the fall of 2017 – the early months of public engagement with the cop academy – were to be made available.
The documents won via FOIA included coveted draft press releases; including commentary from Mayoral advisors to “just be vague” regarding how the cop academy would be funded, misleading the public about the upkeep of current training facilities, and revealing the extent to which then Mayor Emanuel was pushing for the project which included no opportunities for community input. The documents also exposed that Emanuel and his administration planned to build academy before the release of the U.S. Department of Justice’s report documenting the racist and violent nature of the CPD, one of the pretextual reasons Emanuel gave as to why this cop academy needed to be built.
NOTE: For activists, journalists, and researchers the Ruling in favor of #NoCopAcademy by Judge Hall on January 10th, 2020 is potentially precedent-setting. It essentially rules that a Mayoral press conference announcing a city-wide project indicates a Mayoral decision was made before that date, opening potentially vast amounts of subsequent materials – including internal communications and memos in addition to draft press releases and meeting agendas, to FOIA. The ruling is provided below in the hopes that it can assist with future FOIA litigation efforts for greater transparency and accountability from the officials overseeing Chicago’s resources.
View highlights of what the documents attained via the FOIA lawsuit revealed about the city’s process.
Record Production from October 2018, after initial filing of lawsuit:
Record Production from March 2020 Settlement, after Judge Hall’s January 10th ruling:
How to FOIA
New to using the Freedom of Information Act? It’s more straightforward than you might think.
More tools for using FOIA in your campaigns: