New inspector general gives sharp critique of Chicago police watchdog agencies

In her first report, Deborah Witzburg finds that the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability need new standards.

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Deborah Witzburg

Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg on Thursday issued her first report since taking over the office, announcing findings that the disciplinary process for police officers who commit misconduct lacked policies to ensure consistency.

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Chicago’s police watchdog agencies don’t have policies in place to ensure that police who commit misconduct get fair and consistent penalties, according to a report Thursday from City Hall Inspector General Deborah Witzburg.

The Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs and the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability lack protocols and policies to evaluate the mitigating and aggravating factors for officers who’ve committed misconduct, according to the report, the first issued by the inspector general’s office since Witzburg was appointed to head the office.

Without uniform policies to ensure similar cases end up with similar disciplinary recommendations makes it appear that the police accountability process “might be arbitrary and unconstrained, fundamentally undermining the legitimacy of and public confidence in the disciplinary system.”

Witzburg, who oversaw the inspector general’s public safety investigations in her previous job as chief deputy to former City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, said she had no particular case in mind in issuing her sharp critique of the multi-agency process for disciplining Chicago Police officers.

In an interview Thursday, Witzburg said the lack of clear policies for investigators and the agencies could lead to an unfair process. A disciplinary process that is fair and consistent is crucial to reforming a police department that has been under a federal consent decree since 2016, Witzburg said.

“We don’t get there on police reform if we don’t have a functional and credible disciplinary system,” Witzburg said. “In order for people to trust the disciplinary system, we have to be confident that we’re reaching outcomes in a fair and consistent way.”

Police union president John Catanzara had not read the report Thursday but praised any attempt to bring consistency to a disciplinary system rank-and-file officers have always felt was arbitrary.

Catanzara, who had faced firing from the police department twice and resigned in November while facing disciplinary charges before the Chicago Police Board, said Bureau of Internal Affairs recommendations are biased by internal politics, and COPA recommendations for similar acts of misconduct vary based on whether an incident gets media attention.

“Who you are has always been a part of the process; we’ve been dealing with these situations for a long time,” Catanzara said. “You see some officers getting hung out to dry… because of the optics of the situation.”

The report says internal affairs and COPA agreed with recommendations that policy manuals for investigations document the factors they weighed in reaching their decisions. COPA pushed back on a recommendation that the agency collaborate with the the department and Police Board to develop a list of those factors, though the department’s response to the report stated that the department is allowed to create “matrix” of factors for disciplinary investigations under an existing agreement with the union.

It’s not surprising that Witzburg would choose to highlight defects in the process for disciplining Chicago police officers in the first report as inspector general.

She signaled that intention during a wide-ranging interview the day after her confirmation.

To help rebuild trust between citizens and police, Witzburg said she planned to start by shining a light on a police investigative and disciplinary system she described as “enormously complex,” divided among an alphabet soup of agencies.

“It is byzantine, and I am really looking forward to continuing our work in demystifying that — both for members of the department and members of the public,” she said. “If we had an investigative and disciplinary system in which people had reason to have confidence, that would go a long way toward a world in which we had a better relationship between the police department and the community it serves.”

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