Record number of complaints filed against Chicago police during George Floyd protests

More than 900 complaints were filed against officers between May 26 — the date of the first protest after the murder of George Floyd — and June 29.

SHARE Record number of complaints filed against Chicago police during George Floyd protests
Protesters and Chicago police officers during a march downtown Friday, May 29, 2020 over the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.

Protesters and Chicago police officers during a march downtown Friday over the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

Complaints against Chicago police officers spiked to record levels last month amid citywide George Floyd demonstrations — including a single day when nearly 100 complaints were recorded, city data shows.

More than 900 complaints were filed against officers between May 26 — the date of the first protest after the murder of Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota — and June 29, the last day for which records were available.

On June 4 alone the city reported 99 complaints against officers — the most of any day in the last 13 years, according to a Chicago Sun-Times review of publicly available data.

For comparison, 175 complaints were filed against officers during the week of the 2012 NATO summit that saw clashes between police and protesters, and 79 complaints were filed the week after video of the murder of Laquan McDonald by former Chicago Police Department Officer Jason Van Dyke was publicly released in 2015.

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COPA, which replaced its predecessor, the Independent Police Review Authority, in 2017, did not respond to a question about whether the methodology for tracking complaints had changed over the 13 years records were available.

Chicago activists say complaints filed with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs likely don’t come close to the number of incidents in June where protesters were subjected to undue force by officers.

“I think it’s evidence that there was a level of [police] brutality that people experienced at a historic, alarming rate,” said Aislinn Pulley, a founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago.

Chicago police declined to answer questions about the increase in complaints but said in a statement the department was committed to facilitating demonstrations in a safe and peaceful manner.

“During the period of civil unrest, enforcement action was appropriately taken when individuals were violating the law and participating in criminal acts. This was done to protect public safety and all those involved,” police spokesman Luis Agostini said.

‘Clear violations of the consent decree’

Civil rights groups and attorneys representing organizers of the protests say videos taken during protests document many cases where police used force against protesters who were only exercising their rights — sometimes loudly — but were not participating in criminal behavior.

Sheila Bedi, director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern University, said CPD officers violated a federal consent decree that was imposed on the department last year with the use of pepper spray and striking protesters with batons.

The consent decree, which mandates widespread reforms by CPD, requires officers to engage in de-escalation and avoid force whenever possible.

“What we see here is officers doing the opposite,” Bedi said. “The consent decree has been in place now for approximately a year-and-a-half, and we have received more incidents that demonstrate clear violations of the consent decree in the past month than the entire time it’s been in place.”

According to a report published by COPA, the oversight agency identified 413 complaints as directly related to the protests between May 29 and June 5.

Of those, the top complaints were for excessive force (55%), improper searches (22%) and verbal abuse by officers (11%), the report stated.

“It’s certainly unfortunate that in response to people speaking out against police violence that they were met with violence,” Karen Sheley, an attorney with the ACLU, said. “I’m not surprised that a group of people protesting police violence, that were met with police violence, would be motivated to make a complaint.”

Complaints highest during citywide curfew order

On May 30, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered a citywide curfew when a George Floyd demonstration in the city’s downtown was marred by pockets of looting and property destruction that lasted through June 6.

Nearly 47% of all complaints filed against police occurred during that week, the city’s data shows.

Out of the top six days when the highest number of complaints were filed against police in the city’s 13-year dataset, five occurred during the curfew.

Pulley, of Black Lives Matter, believes police were more aggressive during the protests because of the curfew, particularly against people of color.

“Normally, we’re not under a curfew, and there aren’t legal excuses made to kind of give cover to that type of [police] violence,” she said. “I think that’s what CPD used the curfew [to do].”

Only 20% of the city’s complaint records categorized the race of the person who filed the complaint, but of those that did, 60% of complainants were African American, 17% were Latino and 17% were white.

Activists question COPA’s investigations, impact

During a May 31 demonstration in Hyde Park, activist Amika Tendaji said she and her teenage daughter were struck with a batons in the head and chest by officers.

Tendaji did not file a complaint with police or COPA, saying, “I, like many other people, have no faith in COPA to [conduct] a diligent investigation.”

Tendaji said many protesters don’t trust COPA to do a thorough investigation and say that even when a complaint is sustained, the officers don’t face consequences.

The Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit journalism organization, has been tracking police complaints since 2015 when it launched its Citizens Police Data Project and began publishing complaints in a searchable database on its website.

“The likelihood that you will get your complaint sustained is very low,” said Trina Reynolds-Tyler, a data analyst at the organization.

Still, she feels it’s important for people to report complaints to the city.

“We really want to encourage people to file complaints because we need that data if we’re going to be able to see if COPA is doing its job ... if the same officers are coming up again and again, we need to be able to show it.”

In a statement, COPA spokesman Ephraim Eaddy said the agency sustained 42% of all concluded investigations last year.

In the past month, COPA has recommended that three officers be fired for providing false statements to investigators and recommended that two officers be discharged for engaging in the code of silence, Eaddy said.

All five cases are pending before the Chicago Police Board.

Record level of complaints stack up

The sheer number of complaints has led to a backlog for investigators.

Of the cases assigned to COPA, 91 have been closed and 289 are listed as pending investigation.

“As a result of the protests locally, COPA received 591 complaints in a period of two weeks, which is more than the number of complaints we typically receive in an entire month,” Eaddy said, adding the agency was “committed to conducting thorough and timely investigations.”

Following the death of Floyd and the resulting protests, COPA says it formed a “specialized team of investigative personnel and began reviewing and responding to complaints in real time.”

“While we have witnessed officers exercising restraint and professionalism during tense and at times violent confrontations we have also witnessed uses of force which appear excessive,” Eaddy said.

After COPA receives a complaint case, it is either retained by COPA for investigation or turned over to the Bureau of Internal Affairs based on jurisdiction, Eaddy said.

More than 500 cases that have been assigned to CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs do not list a status in the city’s data, and police declined to provide updated records.

“CPD is working with the Department of Innovation and Technology to ensure the most updated statuses and related BIA information are reflected on the public portal,” the department said.

Matthew Hendrickson is a Sun-Times staff reporter. Matt Kiefer is a former data editor at the Chicago Reporter and a 2020 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

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