Dozens of immigrants moved from police station where officers are being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability said it learned of the alleged misconduct Thursday and notified the Chicago Police Department’s bureau of internal affairs, which formally opened an investigation.

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Immigrants board a bus outside the Ogden police district station Friday.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Dozens of immigrants were moved from the Ogden district police station on the Southwest Side Friday afternoon, a day after officials said they were investigating allegations of sexual misconduct involving officers and at least one immigrant temporarily housed there.

About 40 immigrants were loaded onto two buses with their belongings at 3:30 p.m. Chicago police officials did not say where they’re headed. The immigrants were surprised by the move, a volunteer on the scene said.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability said it learned of the sexual misconduct allegation Thursday and notified the Chicago Police Department’s bureau of internal affairs, which formally opened an investigation.

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A police spokesperson initially issued a statement Thursday night saying an investigation into claims of sexual impropriety had jointly been opened.

An officer assigned to the Ogden district, covering Lawndale and Little Village, has been accused of impregnating a teenage girl, law enforcement sources have said. Multiple other officers also have been accused of engaging in sexual misconduct.

The details and scope of the investigation remain unclear. COPA said the allegations haven’t been corroborated. Still, the agency noted that investigations involving alleged sexual misconduct “may involve criminal actions and require cooperation with CPD and ultimately, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.”

“While COPA investigators are currently determining whether the facts and details of this allegation are substantiated, we want to assure the public that all the allegations of this nature are of the highest priority and COPA will move swiftly to address any misconduct by those involved,” Ephraim Eaddy, first deputy chief administrator of COPA, said in the agency’s statement.

“In compliance with the consent decree,” he added, “COPA has jurisdiction to conduct the administrative investigations of sexual misconduct allegations involving Chicago Police officers, and we are obligated to demonstrate our commitment to objectivity, integrity and transparency when responding to misconduct.”

In a video posted on Twitter Friday evening, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara said the allegations are baseless and blamed “police-hating groups that would go to any length to start this kind of nonsense.”
“There is no validity to the complaint,” Catanzara said. “Who knows if it’s even true. ... Who knows where this complaint even originated from.”

“If it did happen, we’ll get to the bottom of it, and we’ll deal with it from there.”

As the city has struggled to accommodate an influx of new arrivals being sent from the Southern U.S. border, controversy has brewed over the decision to temporarily house many of them at police stations.

About 11,000 immigrants have come to Chicago since August. Many were placed on buses or planes and driven to the city at the direction of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Chicago has grappled with finding adequate shelter for them.

Hundreds of immigrants have spent nights sleeping on the floors of police stations. To ease the burden on the stations, the city has turned to housing immigrants at temporary locations, including Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side.

Most of the immigrants reaching Chicago are from Venezuela. Others are from Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, Russia, Cuba, Angola and the Dominican Republic.

Britt Hodgdon, a trauma therapist who is the lead volunteer at the Grand Crossing police district, said she and hundreds of other volunteers sent a letter to the mayor’s office on June 7 that raised several issues concerning immigrants staying in police stations, including the potential for child sexual abuse.

“The city needed to identify and move forward with an oversight process with regards to sexual harm prevention,” she said.

Immigrant parents and those working with them “should be getting abuse and trafficking prevention training. How to spot the signs, how to report it, how to identify the risk of harm,” she said.

After sending the letter to the mayor’s office, Hodgdon said the city began having weekly meeting with volunteers that brought positive developments, like ensuring immigrants had access to bathrooms in police stations.

Still, she said, “We’re not seeing the outcomes we hope to see. We’re not seeing the solutions we hope to see yet.”

Erika Villegas, who is among the many Chicagoans who have made daily visits to police stations to check on the immigrants, said she was “shocked and sad and angry” about the allegations.

If the allegations are true, “You have people in positions of power, people that are respected, people that know better, and yet they’ve taken advantage of people being vulnerable, not having access to help and being unable to voice that they’re scared,” she said.

Since May, the Garfield Ridge resident has become one of the lead volunteers helping out at the Chicago Lawn and Gresham police districts. In addition to making sure immigrants have enough to eat and know how to use public transportation, she’s also warned them about dangers beyond the station.

“We’ve been telling people human trafficking exists, don’t leave the station with someone you don’t know,” Villegas said, adding that if they do, she asks them to share a picture of the license plate with volunteers.

She didn’t expect the danger might have been inside the station, she said.

“Most of us and our migrant families see police as someone that is there to protect you,” Villegas said. “I still have faith in humanity. I guess it never crossed my mind that this would be an issue.”

Going forward, she said a solution would be to make sure the immigrants have a hotline to voice concerns. “People need to know they have a voice, and they can speak up and they’ll be heard,” she said.

Evelyn Figueroa, another volunteer who has helped immigrants mostly on the West Side, said the allegations should prompt the city to staff police stations and monitor the immigrants.

“If we’re going to use the police stations, then there needs to be city staff charged with that,” she said. “This is a byproduct of that. It’s what we’ve been asking for from the beginning, that the city designate liaisons.”

Elianne Bahena, Rosemarie Dominguez and Kisha Smith, who serve on the Ogden District Police Council, denounced the alleged sexual misconduct in a statement.

“Such behavior is utterly unacceptable, and we categorically condemn the abuse of power, especially when it targets one of our most vulnerable populations,” they said. “If these allegations are substantiated, we will pursue appropriate disciplinary and legal actions against the officers involved.“

The police district council representatives said they were notified by a news outlet reaching out to them Thursday — not from CPD or COPA. The lack of notification was “disheartening” and signified a “lack of respect” for the people they represent, they said.

They said Ogden District Police Cmdr. William Betancourt wasn’t available to meet with them due to the ongoing investigation.

“Transparency is of the utmost importance to us, and we pledge to keep the community informed as we receive updates,” they said.

In a statement issued late Friday afternoon, Mayor Brandon Johnson called the allegations “deeply troubling.” Johnson said the city would provide mental health care to “all those in need.”

“The administration is also committed to working with CPD to ensure there are protocols in place to keep migrants at police stations safe while waiting for more adequate shelter, and to hold any officers and/or staff involved accountable upon the determination of an investigation.”

About 40 people gathered Friday afternoon outside the Ogden district police station at a rally organized by the Chicago Activist Coalition for Justice.

Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef implored Gov. J.B. Pritzker to end qualified immunity in Illinois, which he said prevents officers accused of wrongdoing from facing consequences.

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Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef addresses a crowd of reporters and protesters Friday outside the Ogden district police station.

Violet Miller/Sun-Times

“These are predators with a badge,” Yosef said. “How many more children have been exploited? This is not the first time, because evidently the repercussions and consequences are little to zero because of qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity “protects state and local officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Kristian Armendariz, an organizer with Little Village Community Council, said some local groups will try to do formal intake interviews with immigrants to see if they’re being abused because activists don’t trust police — or COPA — to carry out a proper investigation.

The 25-year-old said he doesn’t have much faith the officers will face charges or even be named because the department has a “long history” of covering for its officers.

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Chalk art reading “turn in your friends” was left Friday outside the Ogden district police station.

Violet Miller/Sun-Times

“This should start a revolution. This should stop blue protecting blue,” Armendariz said. “That’s really what’s killing our trust in the police department — that they’d rather protect their own than let the truth out.”

Donoies Castañeras held a sign that read “abusing vulnerable people isn’t serving and protecting, shame on you CPD.”

She said she’s seen police abuse immigrants.

“They use their power to control and abuse people who can’t say anything,” Castañeras said. “Many people stay silent for their immigration situation. They don’t want to be deported.

“The police need to be responsible,” she said. “Especially in protecting women.”

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Donoies Castañeras (left), a 33-year Little Village resident and a Mexican immigrant, stands alongside two other protesters Friday at a rally outside the Ogden district police station.

Violet Miller/Sun-Times

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