Blocks release of OIG report prompted by Chicago “Nobody” podcast

“I don’t want to I want to come to one to jump to a conclusion.”

These were the words Sheparl Wells uttered during our first meeting at the Invisible Institute nearly six years ago. She would repeat them over the years as we worked together to investigate the murder of her 22-year-old son, Courtney Copeland. We chronicled the course of that investigation on the 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist “Kew” podcast hosted by Wells.

Copeland was murdered on March 4, 2016 by an unknown assailant. A bullet pierced his back as he sat in his car on Chicago’s northwest side. He managed to drive to a nearby police station where he flagged down an officer, then fell to the ground. About 13 minutes passed before an ambulance left for a trauma center. Copeland’s heart stopped en route. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he was in police handcuffs, according to the paramedic run sheet and the ER nurse who admitted him.

What Wells wanted, above all, was to learn what he could about the last moments of his son’s life. He was haunted by the thought that he had died alone, handcuffed and afraid of anyone to comfort him.

His inquiry, supported by the Invisible Institute, necessarily focused on the role of the police at the scene — how did they react? Did they do everything they could to minister to Copeland? — and on the quality of investigations by detectives assigned to murder cases.

Wells’ vigorous pursuit of these questions prompted the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General to conduct its own official investigation. The OIG’s quarterly report issued early last year included a summary of that investigation. However, the full results have not been released, and a Freedom of Information Act request for them by the Invisible Institute was denied by the city’s law department.

According to the summary, the OIG recommended that two officers be disciplined: the lead detective on the case and the senior officer at the scene, a sergeant.

Based on audio captured by Wells and provided to investigators, the OIG found that the detective was “disrespectful” in his conversations with her.

Because the detective retired before his investigation was completed, the OIG recommended that the Chicago Police Department send his name to the Human Resources Department to be placed on the “ineligible for rehire” list. CPD disagrees. It took the position that the conduct of the detectives did not rise to a level that should be listed.

With respect to the sergeant, the OIG found that Copeland’s handcuffing was not properly documented and that he failed to ensure that the officer who handcuffed Copeland took him to the hospital. As a result, there was no one in the ambulance who could unlock the hospital cuffs, and the trauma team had to wait for officers to arrive before working on Copeland.

The CPD disagreed that a preponderance of the evidence showed that Copeland was handcuffed and declined to discipline the officer beyond a reprimand.

The OIG summary does not answer a question of central importance to Wells: Why did police handcuff Copeland? Will a young white professional who is fatally injured after falling from a late model BMW in front of the station suffer the same treatment as his black son? Presumably, the full report would shed some light on this question, but the city has not seen fit to release it.

However, the summary contains one recommendation that is revealing about the current state of police reform:

The OIG recommended that CPD review its policy on providing first aid to the injured to ensure that it is in compliance with recent changes in state law and to further examine existing conflicts in CPD policy between the mandated duty to provide first aid to the injured. Use of force by a CPD and a non-mandatory duty to provide first aid to all other injured persons.

In other words, CPD policy at the time of the Copeland incident required officers to administer first aid to those who had been shot or otherwise injured but not to those who were injured and sought help.

The inconsistency of this policy is absurd on its face. It also reflects the dynamics of scandal-driven reform: governments respond to public outrage over a particular incident by making a fix on ineffective policing apparatuses rather than developing coherent policies derived from first principles. Here is the core standard as clearly stated as the first provision of the CPD’s use of force directive, which was revised twice during reform efforts following the police killing of Laquan McDonald:

The Department’s highest priority is the sanctity of human life. The concept of the sanctity of human life is the belief that all human beings should be treated as persons of inherent worth and dignity regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry. , sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, military status, immigration status, homelessness status, source of income, credit history, criminal record, criminal history, or prison status. Members of the Department shall act primarily for the preservation of human life and the safety of all persons involved.

What better way to act on that principle than by equipping and requiring police officers to provide first aid in any situation when someone is injured?

What’s more, after the OIG pointed out the policy inconsistency and the CPD agreed to review the matter, it appears the department took no action to amend the guidance. Despite repeated enquiries, CPD’s news affairs desk could not say whether the policy would be amended. And the guidance itself, as it appears on the CPD website, shows no revisions.

Again, the full OIG report may shed light on broader policy considerations, but the city is withholding it from the public. A final act of disrespect to Wales, it is part of a larger pattern. Despite significant progress in transparency in the post-Laquan McDonald era, the city continues to exercise information control over OIG investigations, essentially neutralizing their essential effectiveness.

Under an ordinance Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed in 2019, the corporation counsel — the city’s chief lawyer, who reports to the mayor — has “sole discretion” over whether to release an OIG investigation. During the Lightfoot administration, the city released only OIG reports dealing with issues raised under previous administrations, while withholding reports of immediate public interest.

For example, the city has yet to release the OIG’s report on the 2019 police raid on social worker Anjanette Young’s home. Nor did the city release the OIG’s report on the disaster that occurred when the permit was issued. A coal company smokestack explosion caused widespread pollution in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in 2020.

As troubling as those examples of government secrecy are, nothing more clearly dramatizes the character of the Lightfoot administration’s stance on transparency than the inability to read the report of the inquiry that inspired the Sheparol Wells.