COPA violating city’s police video policy

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Office of Inspector General says police oversight agency not complying with 60-day release policy

Crusader Staff Report

A report this week from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) is not in full compliance with the Video Release Policy.

The policy requires the public release of video and audio files related to police use-of-force incidents, within 60 days after they have occurred.

The report was the result of a three-year study from June 2016 to February 2019. The probe examined

COPA’s timeliness in releasing materials that would shed light on incidents where Chicago police used force on civilians.

According to the report, COPA violated the 60-day policy 33 times out of 122 cases.

The report cited the following reasons for the violations:

  • COPA “miscalculated” a release deadline or was late to identify an incident as one mandating the release of video, audio, and written police reports within 60 days.
  • COPA did not receive video and audio files from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications “in time to post them within the 60-day window.”
  • Personnel assigned to the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention Information Center (CPIC) are supposed to notify COPA of use-of-force incidents, but have a “lack of understanding of notification guidelines” that render them “uncertain” about when to notify the agency charged with investigating allegations of police abuse. They need “clearer policy, guidance and training.”
  • The report states that COPA exercises “inadequately-guided discretions in release materials other than those mandated” by the policy. Their “pursuit of transparency” is commendable, but “subjectivity and inconsistency” in the agency’s “treatment of these extra-policy matters may raise public concern about the rigor of its implementation.”

As part of its recommendations, the report said COPA and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) should “co-develop” use of force “notification guidelines that are clear and binding” and train Crime Prevention Information Center staff to “execute” them.

The report also recommended that COPA collaborate with OEMC and Mayor Lori Lightfoot on processes that “support timely delivery of materials requested” from OEMC and that the Mayor’s Office, the Law Department and COPA review the criteria for release, discern whether additional criteria or guidance should be concluded and update the policy accordingly.

In response to the recommendations Chicago Police vowed to work together with COPA to implement them.

“CPD will work with COPA to develop clear guidelines for when CPIC needs to notify COPA of an incident,” Scott Spears, assistant general counsel for the office of the CPD Superintendent said. “CPD will develop a directive – either a general or a special order – that will clearly delineate CPIC’s responsibilities concerning when CPIC should notify COPA of an incident.”

In 2016, the Task Force on Police Accountability co-chaired by Lightfoot when she was the Chicago Police Board President, recommended the 60-day release amid public outcry after release of the video showing the brutal murder of Laquan McDonald. Then Mayor Rahm Emanuel embraced the policy after he was accused of suppressing the video while he sought re-election in a runoff in 2015.

COPA was also found to be in violation of their own policy in an OIG report published last week showing they had a practice of administratively terminating police disciplinary investigations short of an investigative finding. By doing this, the office would create a risk when an allegation of police misconduct is improperly disposed of without ensuring either accountability or vindication for a Chicago Police Department member, which was the main reason for the COPA being launched in 2016.

“A transparent and robust investigative process for allegations of police misconduct is profoundly important to fostering trust between the police department and the community it serves,” said Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg. “Members of the public and CPD members are plainly entitled to a police accountability and disciplinary system in which they believe, and COPA fulfills its responsibilities in that system by conducting and documenting thorough, accurate, and consistent investigations.”

While COPA agreed with many of OIG’s recommendations and acknowledged policy errors in a written response to the OIG report, the response was shown to contradict statements of its employees and its own internal documents which were obtained by the OIG.

Many activists have called for the end of COPA entirely, wanting it to be replaced by a Civilian Police Accountability Council, an elected group which would oversee the Chicago Police Department.

The ordinance, which is currently backed by 19 members of the city council, has been endorsed by multiple organizations that have spent much of the summer protesting police brutality, including the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation and the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice.

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