If crime victims, witnesses and perpetrators can make immediate statements, Chicago police officers involved in shootings should be required to do the same, the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability said Friday.
COPA chief administrator Sydney Roberts wants to eliminate the waiting period written into the police contract that critics contend makes it “easy for officers to lie” by giving them 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting.
Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham wants to do more than just retain the 24-hour waiting period — he wants to triple it to the 72 hours that federal agents are afforded after a shooting, on the grounds that “it takes you a while — especially when you’ve been in such a traumatic incident.”
On Friday, Roberts shot down the trauma argument.
“When police do investigations, they are speaking to people who are traumatized. They are traumatized because they have been victimized. They may be traumatized because they witnessed something. They may be traumatized because they were the perpetrator,” she said.
“The trauma that the officer goes through . . . is no different than the trauma that other people go through. We still do those interviews. . . . If that is legitimate justification to bar an interview, it should apply across the board.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is a former Police Board president. She co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability that demanded changes to a police contract that, it claimed, “codifies the code of silence” that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously acknowledged exists at the Chicago Police Department.
The City Council’s Black Caucus has threatened to hold up ratification of any police contract that continues to give officers 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting. The Caucus has also taken aim at anonymous complaints and the portion of the police contract that allows officers to change statements after reviewing video.
Graham is adamantly opposed to allowing anonymous complaints on grounds that there needs to be a way to “establish that people are not just trying to get police officers off the beat so crime can flourish. . . . If these allegations are true, put your name to it.”
Roberts strongly disagreed, citing the “chilling effect” that the demand for sworn complaints has on victims of police wrongdoing. She also wants to eliminate that portion of the police contract that, she claims, ties the hands of COPA investigators.
“There’s a restraint on how COPA investigators can investigate. That needs to be lifted. We should not have any investigative restraints on who can ask questions and when,” she said.
Roberts dismissed as “utterly unsupported by the facts” the FOP’s claims the oversight agency’s homicide investigators are not properly educated or trained.
COPA investigators have gone through investigative training, state-mandated law enforcement homicide investigator training, training for officer-involved shootings and forensic pathology, the COPA chief said.
She has even extended the lead homicide investigator training to staff that is not assigned to major crimes.
“I will put the training of my investigators against those investigators in the Chicago Police Department any day,” Roberts said.
“It’s an easy accusation because they are not law enforcement. [But] I don’t think they have to be. . . . It’s better that they’re not. For the years in the past and probably for the years in the near future, the community doesn’t trust law enforcement to investigate themselves.”
Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority that preceded COPA, recently argued city attorneys have a conflict of interest in bringing police discipline cases before the Police Board. That’s because the Law Department is also concerned with limiting the city’s liability in lawsuits over allegations of police misconduct.
Roberts said she has no idea whether the cases being presented to the Police Board are deliberately weak. But she argued the mere perception of a conflict demands that the cases be turned over to outside attorneys.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson on Tuesday accused a COPA investigator of conducting nearly 80 records searches that compromised probes involving the investigator’s brother, boyfriend and other members of the boyfriend’s family — all Chicago police officers.
Roberts said she was “outraged” by the bombshell allegation. She said she has implemented additional controls and ordered retraining to make certain that it never happens again.
“When you access our database, you have to click that you have no conflict with that particular case you are about to look at,” she said.