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COPA Blew Deadlines For Releasing Videos Of Police Shootings, Watchdog Says

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability missed its deadline to publicly release more than 25 percent of the videos of police violence it was responsible for sharing between 2016 and 2019.

A Chicago Police car turns off of Michigan Avenue.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CITY HALL — The Civilian Office of Police Accountability missed its deadline to publicly release more than 25 percent of the videos of police violence it was responsible for sharing between 2016 and 2019, according to a city watchdog.

The 42-page report released Tuesday by Deborah Witzburg, the city’s deputy inspector general for public safety, detailed evidence of “internal conditions” within the police oversight agency that “inhibited” the release of videos and other materials related to police shootings within the required 60-day window.

Police leaders, COPA, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications “must work together more effectively” to live up to the city’s transparency goals while “attending to privacy and procedural fairness in the police disciplinary system,” Witzburg wrote in a statement accompanying the report Tuesday.

City leaders added the 60-day requirement for the release of video and audio recordings of police violence during the fallout from the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, whose video was kept under wraps for more than a year by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Police Accountability Task Force that Emanuel convened in late 2015 urged the city to adopt a video release policy, writing in its report that the city’s prior process of waiting until investigations concluded before releasing video led to “inconsistencies, confusion and public mistrust” of law enforcement.

The new video release policy, adopted in June 2016, required the public release of all recordings of officers firing weapons or tasers, or causing “great bodily harm” to someone in custody, within 60 days of the incident occurring. COPA has been designated with the responsibility of publishing the recordings under the Chicago Police Department’s federal consent decree, officials said.

Out of 122 use-of-force incidents reviewed by the inspector’s office that occurred between June 2016 and 2019, 33 were not posted to COPA’s public portal within the 60-day deadline, according to the report.

More than half of the missed deadlines were explained by COPA staff mistakenly setting the 60-day clock from the day they were notified of the incident, rather than the day it happened, the inspector found. Other misses were chalked up to administrative lags, court orders or clerical errors that slowed the process.

The inspector’s report also implicated other city agencies for taking too long to send videos to COPA. A review of data from 352 incidents requested by COPA of the city’s emergency management office found that OEMC took more than two months to turn over the materials in more than half of cases.

The watchdog also assigned some blame to the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention and Information Portal, whose staffers “expressed confusion” about which recordings should be turned over to COPA, according to the report.

Witzburg’s office issued a series of recommendations for all the agencies, including for COPA to “implement a quality control process” to make sure videos are being released inside the 60-day deadline. It also called on COPA to work with the police department’s data office to develop “data-driven performance improvement processes” to ensure the oversight agency is “notified of all appropriate incidents.”

“Solutions here depend upon the cooperative efforts of several City agencies, each of whom have acknowledged opportunities to improve the current process,” Witzburg wrote in a statement Tuesday. “A failure to do so risks the City failing to meet its mandate to render public accountability for the use of force by Chicago’s police.”

All the agencies name-checked in the report “agreed” with the inspector’s recommendations, according to the report, and Ligthfoot’s office “has committed to working with each agency to address the identified issues and recommendations,” according to Tuesday’s announcement.

A spokesperson for COPA wrote in a statement Tuesday that the oversight office “appreciates the [inspector’s] review and recommendations and has or will modify processes to incorporate them,” adding that the office “modified practices to address” delays even before Witzburg’s report was published.

“Transparency and objectivity are the cornerstone of COPA’s commitment to civilian law enforcement oversight,” the statement reads. “COPA remains resolute in its commitment to timely provide material to the public and does not deliberately delay release of material in the absence of legal prohibition.”

Witzburg’s report Tuesday was the second time the inspector’s office raised issues with COPA in less than a week. A separate report released on Friday found that the oversight agency lacks a clear process for closing police misconduct investigations, raising the prospect for some complaints to be thrown out prematurely.

The City Council confirmed Witzburg to her current role as deputy inspector general for public safety in June, when she promised to help give the public a clearer window into the city’s ongoing police reform process.

Related: Aldermen poised to confirm new police watchdog as department reels from weekend unrest