“I don’t want to jump to a conclusion. I want to arrive at one.”
Shapearl Wells uttered those words during our first meeting at the Invisible Institute almost six years ago. She would repeat them several times over the years we worked together investigating the murder of her 22-year-old son, Courtney Copeland. We recounted the course of that investigation in the podcast “Somebody,” a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist, hosted by Wells.
Copeland was murdered by an unknown assailant on March 4, 2016. A bullet pierced his back as he sat in his car on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He managed to drive to a nearby police station where he flagged down an officer, then collapsed on the ground. Some 13 minutes passed before an ambulance departed for a trauma center. Copeland’s heart stopped en route. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he was in police handcuffs, according to the paramedic run sheet and the ER nurse who received him.
What Wells wanted, above all, was to learn everything she could about the last moments of her son’s life. She was haunted by the thought that he died alone, handcuffed and frightened with no one to comfort him.
Her quest, with the support of the Invisible Institute, necessarily focused on the role of the police at the scene — How had they responded? Had they done everything they could to minister to Copeland? — and on the quality of the investigation by the detectives assigned to the murder case.
Wells’s dogged pursuit of those questions prompted the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General to undertake its own official inquiry. The OIG’s quarterly report issued early last year included a summary of that investigation. The full results, however, have not been released, and a Freedom of Information Act request for them by the Invisible Institute was denied by the city’s Department of Law.
According to the summary, the OIG recommended that two officers be disciplined: the lead detective on the case and the senior officer at the scene, a sergeant.
On the basis of audio captured by Wells and provided to investigators, the OIG found that the detective was “disrespectful” in his interactions with her.
Because the detective had retired prior to the completion of its investigation, the OIG recommended that the Chicago Police Department refer his name to the Department of Human Resources for placement on the “ineligible for rehire list.” CPD disagreed. It took the position that the detective’s behavior did not rise to the level that would warrant being placed on the list.
With respect to the sergeant, the OIG found that the handcuffing of Copeland was not properly documented and that he had failed to ensure, as required by policy, that the officer who placed Copeland in handcuffs accompany him to the hospital. As a result, there was no one aboard the ambulance who could unlock the cuffs at the hospital, and the trauma team had to wait for officers to arrive before they could work on Copeland.
CPD disagreed that the preponderance of evidence established that Copeland was handcuffed and declined to discipline the officer beyond giving him a reprimand.
The OIG summary does not answer the question of central importance to Wells: Why did the police handcuff Copeland? Would a young white professional falling mortally wounded out of a late-model BMW in front of the station have been subjected to the same treatment as her Black son? Presumably, the full report would shed some light on this question, but the city has not seen fit to release it.
There is, however, one recommendation in the summary that is revealing as to the current state of police reform:
OIG recommended that CPD review its policy regarding the provision of first aid to injured persons to ensure that it complies with a recent change in state law, and to further examine the existing contrast in CPD policy between a mandatory duty to provide first aid to those injured by a CPD use-of-force and a non-mandatory duty to provide first aid to all other injured persons.
In other words, CPD policy at the time of the Copeland incident was that officers were required to provide first aid to those they had shot or otherwise injured but not to those who, having been injured, sought their aid.
This policy anomaly is absurd on its face. It also reflects the dynamics of scandal-driven reform: Government responds to public outrage over a particular incident by bolting a fix onto the dysfunctional machinery of policing rather than developing coherent policies that arise from first principles. The core value here is stated plainly as the first provision of CPD’s directive on use of force, which was twice revised in the course of reform efforts following the police murder of Laquan McDonald:
The Department’s highest priority is the sanctity of human life. The concept of the sanctity of human life is the belief that all human beings are to be perceived and treated as persons of inherent worth and dignity, regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, military status, immigration status, homeless status, source of income, credit history, criminal record, criminal history, or incarceration status. Department members will act with the foremost regard for the preservation of human life and the safety of all persons involved.
What better way to act on that principle than to equip and require police officers to provide first aid under any and all circumstances when someone is injured?
Even more telling is the fact that after the OIG pointed out the policy anomaly and CPD agreed to review the matter, it appears that the department has taken no action to revise the directive. Despite repeated inquiries, CPD’s news affairs desk was unable to say whether the policy will be revised. And the directive itself, as it appears on the CPD website, shows no revision.
Again, the full OIG report might illuminate the larger policy considerations, but the city has withheld it from the public. A final act of disrespect to Wells, this is part of a larger pattern. Despite significant advances in transparency in the post-Laquan McDonald era, the city continues to exercise information control with respect to OIG investigations, largely neutralizing their essential function.
Under an ordinance Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed through in 2019, the corporation counsel — the city’s chief lawyer, who reports to the mayor — has “sole discretion” over whether to release OIG investigations. The only OIG reports the city has released during the Lightfoot administration deal with issues that arose under the previous administration, while reports of great immediate interest to the public have been withheld.
For example, the city is yet to release the OIG’s report on its handling of the botched police raid of the home of social worker Anjanette Young in 2019. Nor has it released the OIG’s report on the debacle that ensued when the city approved permits for the implosion of a coal company smokestack that resulted in massive pollution in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in 2020.
As disturbing as those instances of official secrecy are, nothing more tellingly dramatizes the character of the Lightfoot administration’s stance on transparency than Shapearl Wells not being able to read the report on the investigation she inspired.
The post Chicago Blocks Release of Inspector General Report Prompted by “Somebody” Podcast appeared first on The Intercept.