Austin residents voiced concerns Wednesday about the office of Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), the newly formed agency that investigates police misconduct, during a community meeting held at Columbus Park Refectory.
Residents at this week’s meeting raised sharp questions about how they’ll be protected if and when they file complaints; some expressed fear about how police would treat them after a complaint was filed.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who worked for the Chicago Police Department before being elected alderman, did not attend the meeting because lawmakers had been summoned to City Hall to work on the city’s 2018 budget, said Pam Moore, Taliaferro’s chief of staff, who moderated Wednesday’s meeting.
COPA was created through a 2016 city ordinance to replace the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) in the aftermath of Laquan McDonald’s shooting death.
It officially started to take over complaints filed to IRPA while opening new investigations Sept. 15, Paul Patterson, COPA’s senior public information officer, told about a dozen residents.
Quarterly reports about cases closed and those under review are available online to ensure transparency, Patterson said, adding they have five attorneys on the team who actually go to court.
The agency currently has a total of about 90 staff members, including 70 investigators, 15 major case analysts and two data information analysts, Patterson said. He added that 23 of IPRA’s 40 employees have transitioned to COPA.
The team is highly trained and diverse, Patterson said, adding they are transparent and independent from the Chicago Police Department.
“We are able to present our findings and recommendations,” he said, citing examples such as termination, suspension and firing.
While COPA can propose disciplinary actions against officers based on their investigation, each case must still go to the CPD Superintendent then the Chicago Police Board as part of the review process.
Residents at Wednesday’s meeting also wondered how the agency can remain independent with a chunk of COPA’s budget coming from the city of Chicago.
Without giving direct answers, Patterson told the crowd the question also came up during budget hearings earlier in the day at City Hall.
“Although we are independent, our budget is still a part of the city of Chicago [budget],” he said, stressing they are able to function as a neutral body.
In response to residents’ request to meet the investigative team in person, Patterson said investigators who live in the 29th Ward will talk about their work at January’s 29th Ward meeting.
Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the Office of Budget and Management, told DNA info that COPA’s budget is about $17.5 million.
The budget could allow COPA to hire 17 more investigators as well as more senior advisors and attorneys, Patterson said.
The agency is trying to increase its community presence on Chicago’s West Side, he added, noting Austin will be the first area where COPA community nights will be held, starting in January.
While complainants can remain anonymous and opt to keep certain information confidential, a couple of residents say they think it could be hard to hold officers accountable while also making sure they remain safe during and after an investigation.
“We did have the experience with some police officers who use their power to abuse someone, like a bully,” said one Austin resident during the meeting, who did not want to be named because of fear of retaliation.
“If you are people they don’t like, they put tickets on your cars,” a couple of residents told Patterson, asking how they could file complaints against multiple misbehaving officers without knowing their names.
Patterson said they could submit videotapes through COPA’s Facebook page, adding they have received several anonymous clips from witnesses.
“Any type of evidence that you may obtain is powerful,” he said, encouraging residents to file report about anything suspicious or being done in retaliation.
Community involvement is important, he said.
“My primary concern is retaliation,” an Austin resident said in an interview after the meeting; she also declined to give her name. “The police, they carry guns.”
She said she’s not sure how far an COPA investigation can go and repeated what others had said – that they fear officers can easily come after them if they don’t like what’s been reported.
“If you go through this process, will something actually happen to this person, like will he stop his retaliative actions against you? Or are you just spinning around, wasting time and maybe make things worse for yourself?”
Her concern was echoed by another Austin resident.
“If someone made an allegation against me, how can I defend myself if you don’t know who that person is?” she said.
She also questioned how investigators will be able to acquire information about officers without exposing the witness’ identity.
“They will know who they are,” she said.
The residents said they need to talk to the investigators about the process before giving their full trust to the agency.
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.