By Jamie Kalven, The Intercept
Chicago’s Civilian Officer of Police Accountability responded recently to The Intercept’s reporting on additional footage of the killing by Chicago police of Harith Augustus on July 14, 2018. As we reported, a police dashcam video of the shooting was made public by COPA more than a year after a city attorney told a judge that all relevant video footage had been released.
Recently, COPA released a statement that additional videos — footage captured by two CCTV cameras mounted on a nearby business — have now been released, saying that they had been mislabeled and lost track of until we called attention to them:
Following a thorough internal review, COPA with the assistance of the Invisible Institute, has identified and released additional video related to the ongoing investigation into the officer involved shooting death of Mr. Harith Augustus and has commenced a full review of its transparency release process. … We are reviewing oversight management protocols and processes to ensure nothing but full compliance is followed going forward.
COPA’s words echo a statement issued by the office of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot following the publication of our article. After noting that Lightfoot had helped draft the city’s policy that all relevant video footage is to be released within 60 days of the incident, the statement continued:
We are working with the Chicago Police Department and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability to investigate what appears to be a violation of this strict video release policy, and we will take any and all necessary actions to ensure nothing but full compliance is followed going forward.
The failure to release the dashcam video appears to be the result of lapses in investigative protocols, rather than deliberate suppression. The police department properly uploaded the dashcam footage, along with other video evidence, to Evidence.com, the cloud-based evidence management system. The COPA investigator made four attempts to download the dashcam footage. COPA inferred from the multiple download efforts that the investigator was unsuccessful but did not record the fact in the file. He subsequently resigned from the agency, and the case was assigned to another investigator, who appears to have assumed that the file was complete without checking. That investigator in turn also left the agency, and a third investigator was assigned, who decided to reboot the investigation, requested all evidence in the case from the department, and eventually located the dashcam video.
A spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department informed me that because of the lapses in handling evidence in this case, the department and COPA going forward “will adopt a system of reconciliation for all evidence on top of the multiple layers of approvals and vetting that exist already.”
The churn of personnel at COPA, with investigators leaving the agency in large numbers, which I reported on in May, continues and clearly contributed to the investigative lapses in this case. More than 40 employees have resigned since January 1, 2018, with well over 30 of them leaving since the start of Sydney Roberts’s tenure as head of the agency in the spring of 2018 — a turnover rate that a former COPA supervisor characterized as symptomatic of “a crisis of confidence in leadership.”
When the third investigator assigned to the Augustus case located the dashcam video, COPA called to inform me that the video would soon be uploaded to its website. The agency did not, however, make a public statement. Nor did it notify Will Calloway, the activist who had filed the Freedom of Information Act suit that forced the release of videos and other evidence more than a year ago, at which time a city attorney had stated in court that the police department had fully complied with Calloway’s request for “all video and audio” from the incident. Absent our investigation, it is unlikely that anyone would ever have noticed COPA had added the video to its website. In light of this sequence of events, Matt Topic, Calloway’s attorney, has filed a motion seeking contempt sanctions against the police department and COPA.
Another symptom of organizational dysfunction is that COPA on August 20 denied the Invisible Institute’s FOIA request for the dashcam video on the ground that the documents requested were part of “a pending investigation,” despite the fact that the city lawyer had represented in court a year earlier that COPA, in compliance with the 60-day video release policy, had released all relevant video footage.
COPA has now admitted that it mislabeled and lost track of relevant CCTV video in the Augustus case. Its candor in publicly acknowledging that lapse is to be commended, but the lapse itself is deeply troubling.
Taken together, these findings have obvious significance in the context of the Augustus case. They also constitute an alarming biopsy of a critically important agency that has devolved into acute crisis. The question is: What is the Lightfoot administration prepared to do to restore it to health?
This article originally appeared in The Intercept.