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As Lightfoot ponders a fix, city’s handling of fatal shootings by cops continues to violate state law

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability is violating state law by conducting investigations into whether Chicago cops should be criminally prosecuted for fatal shootings, according to documents and sources. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been sitting on a consultant’s recommendations to fix the problem since July, records show.

In this image taken from a bodycam video March 31, a Chicago police officer holds out his weapon while running after Anthony Alvarez, who ended up being fatally shot. The police say Alvarez, 22, brandished a gun while being chased.
In this image taken from a bodycam video March 31, a Chicago police officer holds out his weapon while running after Anthony Alvarez, who ended up being fatally shot. The police say Alvarez, 22, brandished a gun while being chased.
Civilian Office of Police Accountability

The way the city of Chicago investigates fatal shootings by police officers violates state law and Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been sitting on recommendations to fix that for nearly a year, records reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

According to the documents, the city isn’t complying with the Illinois Police and Community Relations Act, which governs investigations regarding whether a police officer who has shot someone to death should be charged with a crime.

Under the law, which took effect in 2016, a criminal investigation into a fatal shooting by police has to be done by two investigators from outside the agency that employs the officer involved.

It says one of the investigators doing a criminal investigation of an “officer-involved death” must be a specially trained “lead homicide investigator.” Lead homicide investigators must be sworn officers, according to the state’s law enforcement training board.

In Chicago, the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability conducts the administrative investigations into whether an officer violated department rules in a fatal shooting, as well as criminal investigations into whether he or she should be charged with a crime.

The city agency’s investigators have the training to be lead homicide investigators, but they aren’t sworn law enforcement officers, and COPA isn’t a law enforcement agency.

That means its criminal investigations, whose results go to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for a decision on whether to prosecute an officer for a fatal shooting, are being conducted illegally, officials say. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

Maggie Hickey
Maggie Hickey, who is the independent monitor of the city’s compliance with the police consent decree
Provided photo

Under a federal consent decree — a court order that took effect in 2019 requiring sweeping reforms in Chicago Police Department practices — the city must “use best efforts” to ensure that a law enforcement agency conducts investigations into “officer-involved deaths.”

Maggie Hickey, the independent monitor of the city’s compliance with the consent decree, agreed to let the city hire the security consulting firm Hillard Heintze to study the matter and offer options on how the city can comply with the law. Hickey declined to comment.

Last July, Hillard Heintze offered Lightfoot’s administration five options, including one in which an Illinois State Police task force — which works with the Cook County sheriff’s and state’s attorney’s offices to conduct such criminal investigations for suburban police departments — also would handle Chicago’s cases. It estimated that would cost $33 million over five years, plus up to $50 million for an office in Chicago for the task force. That option is the “most feasible,” the consultant said.

Another option it gave was to create a city-led task force that would include the state police and other outside law enforcement agencies.

But the consultants said the “best option” would be for the city to get the Illinois Legislature to amend the state law to allow civilian COPA employees to conduct those criminal investigations.

The Hillard Heintze report said the different options could take three months to two years to put in place.

According to the consultants’ report, the number of potential investigations is relatively low. There were 11 fatal shootings by Chicago police officers in 2016, eight in 2017, six in 2018 and five in 2019, according to the report.

An organization called Mapping Police Violence says on a per capita basis, taking into account the city’s population, Chicago was “below the big-city average” for fatal shootings by cops between 2013 and 2019. This year, with three fatal shootings by police, Chicago is fifth nationally among big cities behind San Antonio, Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix, according to the group.

In 2018, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — who had a knife but was walking away from him — 16 times. Van Dyke, who was fired, was sentenced to almost seven years in prison.

The McDonald killing prompted a federal civil-rights investigation that led to the consent decree.

According to City Hall emails, Lightfoot’s staff repeatedly presented the Hillard Heintze options to Lightfoot last year.

The emails were among a cache of hacked city documents released last month by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a government transparency advocacy group that’s been likened to WikiLeaks.

An unrelated hacker group, believed to be in the former Soviet Union, stole the emails during a series of data breaches that targeted a file-sharing service and also swept up sensitive information from corporations, universities and governments. The emails from Lightfoot’s administration were stolen from Jones Day, a law firm that represents the city and other high-profile clients including former President Donald Trump.

As part of an apparent extortion scheme, the hackers posted the emails on the dark web, a shadowy area of the Internet. That’s where Distributed Denial of Secrets says it found them.

On Sept. 16, according to those emails, one City Hall aide asked another staffer to provide a memo with those recommendations to “put it in [the mayor’s] book again tonight.”

Susan Lee, then-deputy mayor for public safety, noted the memo already had been “submitted at least four times,” according to the emails.

The memo by Lee and deputy corporation counsel Tyeesha Dixon to Lightfoot, dated July 31, had said the mayor was most interested in the option of a city-led task force.

But the Law Department recommended the city hire the state police to do criminal investigations of fatal shootings by officers for the next two or three years until the city could create its own task force, and asked for Lightfoot’s approval by Aug. 4.

Lee left City Hall in October and was replaced last Wednesday by John O’Malley, a former chief deputy U.S. marshal. He’s been a Chicago Police Board member since 2017 when Lightfoot chaired the board, which decides serious disciplinary cases involving Chicago cops.

City Hall sources say Lightfoot sees the issue of complying with the law regarding investigations of police shootings as a priority, but the coronavirus pandemic and the city’s rise in killings and carjackings were more pressing concerns last year. Also, new police Supt. David Brown was trying to get up to speed with the consent decree, the sources say.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara (center).
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara, center, says the union has long pushed back against what it calls the city’s unfair and illegal criminal investigations into fatal shootings by police.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

“They don’t seem to give a damn,” says John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, of the city’s noncompliance with the law.

Catanzara says the union has been pushing back on COPA’s “illegal” and unfair criminal investigations of police shootings since “long before my arrival in this chair. It is absolutely in violation of state law.”

The fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez on March 31 is “a perfect example of COPA getting out above their skis,” Catanzara says. “The department didn’t want to strip that officer. But COPA couldn’t wait to recommend for that officer to be stripped of his police powers. That’s already telling you it’s a biased investigation from the get-go.”

The “most logical solution” to the city’s problem is to have the state police conduct criminal investigations of shootings by Chicago police officers, Catanzara says.

“I hate to put more on their plate, but they are the lead law enforcement agency in the state,” he says. “So it would only make sense that they would be the lead investigators.

“Why is she sitting on it?” Catanzara says of Lightfoot. “Because she has no choice. If she was to turn it over to the state police, she’d be lambasted by at least what’s left of her base because they think that would be surrendering more police reform.”

A city spokesperson offered no response on the issue, and the city has generally declined to comment on any subject arising from the hacked emails.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sponsored the Police and Community Relations Improvement Act in 2015, when he was a state senator. A spokeswoman for Raoul didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law, said a petition could be filed in state court seeking to force the city to comply with the law.

And Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, said the city could also be held in contempt of court for violating the consent decree by not following the police-investigations law.

That would hinge on the monitor issuing a report “that highlights and dramatizes the areas in which the police department and city are out of compliance,” Futterman said. Then the attorney general could file a motion to enforce the decree and hold the city in contempt.

“The consequences are life and death, public safety and also lots and lots of money,” Futterman said, referring to legal payouts for police misconduct.

READ CONSULTANT’S REPORT

READ LIGHTFOOT MEMO