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Police Racked Up So Many Complaints During Summer Protests A Special Unit Was Created To Investigate

Eight Chicago officers have been relieved of their police powers so far due to protest-related complaints from the summer.

A Chicago Police officer uses a baton to hit protesters as officers guard Trump Tower in River North on May 30, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The Civilian Office of Police Accountability received so many complaints against police officers stemming from summer protests the office had to establish a special unit to investigate the claims. 

The issue of police accountability took center stage on the last of 11 days of budget hearings where aldermen dissected Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $12.8 billion 2021 pandemic budget.

During a virtual hearing Tuesday, Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, told aldermen how the agency was flooded with protest-related complaints about police over the summer — and how they’ve tried to take action.

Through Nov. 2, eight Chicago officers have been relieved of their police powers due to protest-related complaints. The office has recommended another four officers be stripped of their powers, but their cases are still pending.

In total, the department received 520 complaints against officers May 29-Oct. 31 related to protests. Of those, 232 were handled by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and 288 were referred to the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability is still investigating 170 complaints, while five were referred to state or federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Another 61 were dismissed on administrative grounds.

Roberts told aldermen the agency had to create a special investigative unit because of the surge of complaints. There were 400 just in the two weeks of protests that followed police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The other complaints primarily came in the days immediately following the July 17 protest at the Christopher Columbus statue and an Aug. 15 protest that ended when police officers “kettled” protesters on LaSalle Street in the loop.

Roberts said a handful of themes emerged in the complaints: excessive force with batons, failure to wear a badge or other identifier, excessive verbal abuse and officers not wearing or failing to activate their body cameras. 

In addition to some officers not wearing the cameras, Roberts said other officers were working so many hours of overtime they did not have sufficient down time to recharge the batteries of their cameras, limiting their effectiveness.

Roberts said her office sent a memo to the Police Department that characterized the nature of complaints they were receiving and she was happy to report the department made a number of operational changes based on the memo.

“One of the things that we’re most pleased about is the department has recently revised some of their policy regarding their response to mass arrests. And several of our concerns have already been addressed,” she said.

In an effort to provide greater transparency into the complaints, the office created an online data portal that is updated monthly.

Earlier in the hearings, Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson blasted the pace and organizational structure of police reform efforts in the city.

The Inspector General’s Office is working with the federal monitor overseeing the court-imposed consent decree on the Police Department to provide a full report on the protest-related complaints. But the report has been delayed by the Police Department not providing documents in a timely manner, Ferguson said. It’s expected to be released in the first quarter of 2021.

Police Board President Ghian Foreman, who spoke after Roberts during Tuesday’s hearings, himself filed a complaint with the agency after officers hit him at a protest in Hyde Park. His case is still being investigated, he said.

Despite Ferguson’s withering criticism of the Police Department, Roberts defended the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and urged patience from aldermen tired of waiting on police reforms.

“I would just ask that you continue to allow us to demonstrate the improvements that we’ve made,” she said. “But we do know that we have a lot of baggage to overcome in order to build that trust.”

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