Andrea Kersten, Chief Administrator at COPA, gives an update on the allegations of sexual misconduct against asylum seekers by Chicago Police officers on July 18, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

WEST TOWN — An investigation into allegations that Chicago police officers sexually assaulted migrants living in a West Side police station is ongoing, but authorities are having trouble finding potential victims, they said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, another allegation of sexual misconduct has come to light, this time from the Town Hall (19th) District station in Lakeview.

Officials with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability spoke publicly Tuesday about its investigation into allegations that one or more officers had sexual contact with migrants sheltering in police stations. That includes claims that an officer in the Ogden (10th) District, 3315 W. Ogden Ave., raped an underage female migrant.

Those allegations, made public in media reports, caused widespread outrage and condemnation from political leaders and community organizers.

The police oversight agency began its investigation July 6. Since then, the agency has uncovered another claim of “sexual misconduct” involving a migrant and one or more officers in the 19th Police District, Civilian Office of Police Accountability chief Andrea Kersten said.

But, after nearly two weeks of investigating, the police oversight agency is still working to substantiate whether this alleged abuse in fact occurred, Kersten said.

“This investigation remains open and ongoing. But I can confirm that to date, we have not identified any migrants claiming to be the victim of sexual assault or any form of sexual misconduct by CPD members,” Kersten said. “Given the severity of this allegation, [COPA] has allocated significant resources to the investigation of this incident.”

Dozens of South American migrants seek temporary shelter at the Chicago Police 12th District station near Pilsen on May 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

So far, investigators have canvassed 14 migrant shelters and conducted outreach to migrants, both in person and via texts from community groups who have “ongoing relationships” with the migrant community in Chicago, Kersten said.

Those working the case include 10 investigators who have expertise in sex crimes and have fluency in Spanish.

The investigation has been “broad” in nature, leading investigators to uncover a “small number” of additional complaints involving the treatment of migrants that have arrived in Chicago, Kersten said. Only one of those — the allegations stemming from the Town Hall station — relates to sexual misconduct, she said.

The oversight group will continue searching for alleged victims of the mistreatment, Kersten said. The agency is taking a “victim-centered approach,” Kersten said, acknowledging that migrants are in vulnerable positions and may not trust the criminal justice system.

Migrants involved in the allegations may have left the city, making it more difficult for investigators to reach potential victims, officials said.

“There can be profound and sometimes impenetrable barriers, which prevent survivors of sexual misconduct from recording their experiences or participating in our systems of justice,” Kersten said. “These barriers are often magnified when an act of sexual misconduct is perpetrated by a person in a position of trust, such as a police officer.”

The police oversight agency did not identify any of the officers accused of wrongdoing. Activists have asked that the officer’s names be released.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability has also provided regular updates to the Chicago Police Department’s bureau of internal affairs, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the FBI regarding the status of its investigation, Kersten said.

Kersten asked for the public’s patience as the agency investigates the claims.

“I’m not going to be rushed in the investigation of this process,” she said. “I want to ensure that we have done every bit of due diligence to provide as much outreach, as much information and as much education to that very vulnerable community to make sure that we’ve done all we can to ensure people have a feeling of individual safety in their ability to come to us with an experience that they had.”

Andrea Kersten, Chief Administrator at COPA, gives an update on the allegations of sexual misconduct against asylum seekers by Chicago Police officers on July 18, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Details surrounding the potential victim or victims, potential officers accused and specifics of the allegations remain unknown. Officials have largely remained silent on the status of that investigation until Tuesday.

A volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous, helping migrants living at police stations on the North and Northwest Side told Block Club it isn’t surprising the police oversight agency has been unable to speak to potential victims.

“They’re coming from countries like Venezuela and seeking asylum because they are unsafe back home. Some of them were beaten up by police because of their political affiliations back home,” the volunteer said. “So they experienced a lot of state violence prior to coming here.”

Migrants have a genuine fear of speaking to law enforcement about the allegations due to fleeing countries where someone could be murdered for speaking out against a cop, the volunteer said.

“And many still don’t know what COPA is, let alone feel confident they can report police misconduct to them without facing reprisals,” the volunteer said.

Women as young as 18 have been living at some of the police stations for months, said the volunteer, who called for migrants to be completely moved out of police stations.

“We have heard, as volunteers, about a sergeant in 17th District where COPA was called in twice due to an officer making racial slurs or filming migrants while they’re sleeping. Posting the videos about them online and complaining about them being there,” the volunteer said. “But every single migrant at a police station, every single one has asylum seeking paperwork and are here legally.”

City officials quickly moved asylum seekers out of the 10th District police station, but hundreds of migrants are still sleeping on district floors across the city.

Since August, more than 11,000 migrants have come to Chicago.

People have come from several countries, but a majority are fleeing political and economic upheaval in Venezuela. Many of them were sent to Chicago on buses by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other border-state Republican governors. Some were given free plane tickets to the city by local groups at the U.S.-Mexico border.

About 4,500 people are staying in city-run temporary shelters. Hundreds more are staying in police stationssleeping on crowded floors and relying on donations from neighbors while they wait for shelter space to become available.

With city services stretched thin, many neighbors, groups and churches have stepped up to provide migrants food, clothing, toiletries and even set them up in community-run shelters.

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