Neighborhood group fighting for police data wins latest round in court

May 6, 2014
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A West Side neighborhood group recently won what it considers a major victory in its ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit against the city.

The city must now hand over all data requested by the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA) in its lawsuit alleging that 911 response times are slower in predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods than in mostly white areas of Chicago.

A Cook County circuit court judge last month granted the motion for discovery, which will allow the plaintiffs to request data before the trial begins, said Karen Sheley, an attorney representing CANA and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

The lawsuit has been through a roller coaster of sorts since it was filed three years ago. In 2012, a trial court threw out the suit, calling it a political issue rather than a judicial one.

The groups were also denied staffing data from the Chicago Police Department on the basis it would reveal too much information to criminals about which areas of the city are understaffed.

ACLU and CANA – led by Austin residents Ron and Serethea Reid — appealed that decision, and in November 2013, a three-judge panel reinstated the suit. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled CANA and ACLU could move ahead with subpoenas to obtain the data they’re seeking.

Now, that motion will force the city to hand over any numbers the plaintiffs request for its case, Sheley said.

“We’re really, really happy,” she said. “The Reids have been wonderful and persevering through all of this.”

The groups believe the city is deploying officers unequally throughout the city. And that practice, they say, violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, which makes it unlawful for government to provide services in a way that has a disparate, negative effect on any racial group.

The Reids are gratified by the latest twist in the 3-year-old case.

“We are heartened that our victory, in forcing the city to comply with the previous appellate court order to provide discovery, will provide the data necessary to end allocation of police services based on community wealth and political clout,” the couple said in a joint statement to AustinTalks.

A recent Chicago Sun-Times story showed that 911 times vary in different parts of the city. Data shows dispatch times to the Austin area takes about 4 minutes and about 6minutes on the Far South Side. That’s compared to a 3-minute dispatch time in the Loop.

Serethea Reid studied the issue, authoring this AustinTalks piece in February 2012 that discussed slow police response times in certain neighborhoods and how the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications refused her FOIAs requesting data on the city’s 911 response times.

The city’s Law Department declined to comment for this story because it does not give statements on motions, a department spokeswoman said.

After the lawsuit was reinstated in November 2013, the department told AustinTalks in a statement that “the courts will not find discrimination based on race or national origin.”

A spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents officers, also declined to comment.

A trial date has not been set, Sheley said.

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