Police accountability office urges West Siders to know their rights

February 9, 2018
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More than 50 people turned out Tuesday night at Hope Community Church to learn more about the city’s new police accountability office.

“It’s important for us to know the responsibility of police. It’s also important we know the responsibilities we have as citizens,” said Rev. Steve M. Epting, who opened his church to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) as it works to increase its visibility.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Epting said.

Several COPA staff members were present at the Feb. 6th community meeting, one of many the office is holding across the city but especially in West and South Side neighborhoods where, COPA staff noted, there are many interactions between residents and police.

“Anyone at any time can have an interaction with a police officer,” said Ephraim Eaddy, COPA’s director of community outreach and engagement. And COPA wants residents to have the knowledge they need to deal with officers.

Based on the number of complaints COPA received from West Side police districts in its first year of operation, the data “told us Austin was the place where we had to be,” Eaddy said.

In the last 12 months, COPA received complaints from residents in the 60639, 60644 and 60651 zip codes that broke down this way:

  • Excessive force (39 percent)
  • Verbal abuse (14 percent)
  • Civil suits (12 percent)
  • False arrest (12 percent)
  • Improper detention (6 percent)
  • Improper search (6 percent)
  • Coercion (5 percent)
  • Unnecessary display of weapon (5 percent)
  • Neglect of duty (1 percent)

Residents can file a complaint in a number of ways, including in person at COPA’s office at 1615 W. Chicago Ave. (fourth floor), by phone at (312) 743-COPA or by email.

A challenging part of COPA’s job is interviewing civilians, a key part of investigating each complaint, said Chief Investigator Andrea Kersten, a former prosecutor and administrative law judge.

That’s partly because of the history of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the agency that preceded COPA, Kersten said. During much of IPRA’s existence – it was created by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley after the fallout of former Commander Jon Burge – the office rarely ruled against police.

“It makes it really hard to get the complete picture” when witnesses are reluctant to come forward,” Kersten said. “We are really going the extra step to make ourselves available to people who may have relevant information for us.”

A complaint – which is supposed to be resolved within six months – can be closed by COPA by being categorized in one of these ways:

  • within policy (no allegations of misconduct)
  • sustained
  • not sustained (insufficient evidence)
  • unfounded (the act didn’t occur as alleged)
  • exonerated (act did occur but is not a violation of policy or the law)

With each investigation, COPA is “tasked with giving every one an even playing field” – not favoring the officer or the civilian, Kersten said.

The office has 125 employees; fully staffed it would have 140. Is that enough? asked one audience member.

“We are adequately staffed,” but as more complaints come, in COPA may need more support, said Mia Sissac, public information officer.

Another audience member wondered if it’s legal for a police officer to order someone to unlock their phone and for an officer to search it. No, there must be a search warrant.

What happens if an officer wants to file a complaint against another officer? At a certain level, Chicago Police Department employees are required to report misconduct to COPA, so there are complaints coming from CPD.

“Not all of our complaints are coming from citizens. A lot of our complaints are coming from officers,” Kersten said.

Toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Ernesto Cato III, the 15th District’s police commander, walked to the front of the room and said, “I do appreciate the work that COPA is doing. . . . The No. 1 thing is just doing what’s right and getting to the truth.”

Rev. Epting ended the meeting by encouraging West Side residents to reserve judgment while a case is being investigated.

“Whenever you see something on the news, try not to make your judgment right away. Please let the investigative process take its course,” Epting said, adding, “I’m praying for our commander every day. We have a lot of work to do.”

COPA will be back in Austin Feb. 13 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The South Austin Neighborhood Association is hosting the event – at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd. – as part of its police and community accountability project.

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