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COPA chief says recurring themes dominate complaints against CPD during civil unrest

Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said complaints about excessive use of batons, verbal abuse and police failure to activate or possess body cameras were so prevalent that she recommended policy changes to CPD.

Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, during a Sun-Times interview in July 2019.
Rich Hein | Sun-Times file

Excessive use of batons and verbal abuse. Failure to activate or possess body cameras. Fatigued police officers working so many hours, they didn’t have time to recharge their body cams.

Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said “several themes were quite prevalent” during investigations into complaints that poured into her office after the civil unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd.

“Excessive use of batons. The failure to possess and/or activate body-worn cameras. One of the other things that we saw very early on is that officers were not given sufficient rest periods between deployments. So not only were the officers potentially fatigued. Their body-worn cameras did not have sufficient time to charge,” Roberts told aldermen Tuesday during the final day of City Council budget hearings.

“We also saw several other things. Inadequate records of officers’ locations. Failure to display identification. As well as excessive verbal abuse.”

The themes were so consistent across “multiple investigations” that Roberts said she fired off a memo to the Chicago Police Department urging top brass to “take immediate action to address” the deficiencies.

“One of the things that we’re most pleased about is the department has recently revised some of their policy regarding their response to mass arrests. And several of our concerns have already been addressed,” she said.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) asked Roberts to share those recommendations with aldermen — even as a federal monitor, the city’s inspector general and COPA continue to investigate the barrage of citizen complaints following the demonstrations.

“A lot of those recommendations we want to make sure become implemented now and in the future so that, if this occurs again, we’re able to deal with that,” Osterman said.

In August, Roberts told the Sun-Times that, of the unprecedented 400 complaints filed against Chicago Police officers during that tumultuous, two-week period, roughly 170 had enough supporting evidence to warrant full-blown investigations by COPA.

Those cases included an activist seen on video being punched in the face by a Chicago Police officer during a confrontation at the now-removed Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park; a woman who says she was dragged out of her car by her hair by a police officer who knelt on her neck, and Police Board President Ghian Foreman’s contention that he was struck in the legs five times by a police baton after encountering a demonstration in Kenwood.

Several of those cases have been closed, but the “lion’s share of the protest complaints” are still being investigated, Roberts said.

Ald. Anthony Sposato (38th) countered, “I don’t know if I agree with you that they were protests, but we’re all entitled to our opinion.”

Nearly three years into her tenure, Roberts argued that COPA has made huge strides in rebuilding public trust shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

In 2019 and through the first three quarters of 2020, COPA has “sustained” 42% of the complaints against police officers accused of violating department policy. That’s 10% higher than its predecessor agency.

And the number of officers determined to have lied or engaged in the code of silence or both “has increased by 40%” since 2016.

“COPA is not the civilian oversight body of Chicago’s past,” Roberts said.