Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks about Chicago’s weekend of gun violence during a news conference at the Chicago Police Department 6th District station, Monday, August 6, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo: Joshua Lott (Getty Images)

Why would the Chicago Police Department be running background checks on people who sign up to speak at public meetings of the city’s police disciplinary panel?

That is what many people want to know after a public records request conducted by the Chicago Tribune revealed that since January 2018, CPD has collected information on at least 60 people in advance of their speaking at the weekly meetings—a practice that police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed has been going on since at least 2013.

From the Tribune:

The checks appear to be extensive, with police searching at least one internal department database to determine if speakers have arrest or prison records, warrants outstanding for their arrest, investigative alerts issued for them by the department and even if they’re registered sex offenders or missing persons. Police also searched comments that speakers had previously made on YouTube or on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, among other internet sites, the documents show.

Among those subjected to background checks were a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted decades ago by a Chicago police officer, a community activist who gained prominence after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a police officer and a 77-year-old man known for his frequent, flamboyant rants on a variety of topics at public meetings across the city.

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After being made aware of the background checks during an interview on Tuesday, newly-elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned them, stating she was unaware that this had been going on and she was “furious and incredulous.” She told the Tribune she had ordered an immediate stop to the practice and said CPD owes the public an apology.

“I want to make sure that we get to the bottom of this and understand who is responsible,” Lightfoot said.

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“I think that people have a right to come and express themselves. That’s what the First Amendment is all about. While I can imagine there would be curiosity about (who) some of these people are, to be doing in effect full criminal background checks and then circulating that information is totally inappropriate,” she said.

Previously, those who wanted to speak at the monthly meetings had to sign up the day before to do so, but in light of the revelation by the Tribune, that policy has now been changed, and speakers only have to sign up 15 minutes before the meeting, according to the Tribune.

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Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson was asked about the practice on Tuesday, and while he deflected by telling a Tribune reporter that “nobody did anything with it,” he also indicated that the practice has come to an end.

Oddly enough, because they were running background checks on everyone who signed up to speak, those caught up in the sweep included a spokesman for the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and some Chicago police officers.

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Officer John Catanzara frequently speaks at the Police Board meetings and has been openly critical of department leadership. He told the Tribune he found the background checks to be “intrusive.”

Karen Sheley, the director of the ACLU of Illinois’ police practices project, summed it up best when she told the Tribune: “They’re starting to collect (a) picture of information about a person by investigating them online and also in criminal databases and keeping a file on it. That’s dossier collecting on people because they’ve engaged in free speech, and it raises significant First Amendment concerns.”

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