Head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability announces resignation

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CHICAGO —The head of the agency that investigates shootings by Chicago police officers and allegations of officer misconduct announced her resignation Wednesday.

Sydney Roberts’ departure as chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability comes as Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters she was “extraordinarily unhappy” with how the agency handled some issues during her three-year tenure, especially the Anjanette Young case, which took nearly a year and a half for COPA to conclude.

Young was the subject of an errant police raid at her Near West Side home in early 2019, and COPA after 16 months announced just last week that it found nearly 100 allegations of wrongdoing against more than 12 officers who played roles in the raid. The case is still pending a review by Chicago police Superintendent David Brown.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot said she did not seek Roberts’ resignation, but lamented some of the work the agency did under her leadership.

“A lot of that time, nothing happened. That’s not acceptable,” Lightfoot said. “I’ve been very candid both in public but also directly about the fact that I think COPA needs to be much more responsive, much more mindful about the fact it carries a very important position and role in police accountability. We’ve got to make sure they move forward in a thorough but expeditious way because as everyone knows, justice delayed is justice denied.”

Roberts will remain head of COPA through the end of next week, according to her spokesman. In a statement, Roberts touted how COPA has “established the essential investigative legal foundation, as well as the capacity to deliver thorough investigations supported by comprehensive analyses and sound findings and disciplinary recommendations.”

“Although I leave with a heavy heart, I am confident that COPA will continue to advance meaningful police reform and accountability through objective investigations, a commitment to transparency, community engagement and policy recommendations, all of which will improve policing outcomes in our communities,”

Roberts’ resignation also comes on the heels of the agency’s especially swift release of video and some police reports related to its investigations of the fatal shootings by police of 13-year-old Adam Toledo on March 29, and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez two days later.

COPA regularly releases video of shootings by police as part of the city’s video-release policy, which requires the agency to publicize body camera and other video footage within 60 days of each incident, with wiggle room for a 30-day extension. Footage in the Toledo and Alvarez cases were showcased within a month from the time those shootings occurred — 17 days for the Toledo case.

Releasing video for COPA that soon after a shooting by police was rare for an agency that more often posts videos right before the 60-day deadline. Police accountability advocates have questioned the length of time it has taken COPA to release such footage under Roberts’ tenure and have called for a review of its video-release policy.

In September, Roberts responded to criticism from the city’s inspector general’s office for its report suggesting COPA has not released video or other investigative material in a number of police use-of-force cases within a required 60-day period. The IG found that of 122 cases that were posted on COPA’s website over three years, 33 were posted after the 60-day deadline. In 14 of those cases, the IG found, COPA employees relied on the notification date of the use of force rather than the date it occurred, which COPA has said was an “oversight,” according to the IG’s findings.

At a public meeting, Roberts sought to downplay the delays cited by the city inspector general’s office by trying to provide context. For instance, Roberts said, those 14 cases cited by the IG were only delayed by one day, and she insisted there hadn’t been any “deliberate or intentional delay of video in any officer-involved shooting or investigation that qualified for release.”

“We own our actions and have and will make necessary corrections,” Roberts said at the meeting. “That’s the essence of responsibility on which we hold ourselves accountable.”

In 2018, a panel of civic and community leaders picked Roberts to lead COPA. She previously led the Illinois Secretary of State Police as its director beginning in 2010. Roberts was picked to finish out the term of Sharon Fairley, who left COPA in the fall of 2017 in an unsuccessful bid for Illinois attorney general.

A few months into Roberts’ COPA tenure, she wrote then-police Superintendent Eddie Johnson a letter criticizing him for his decision to release snippets of body camera footage a day after the fatal July 2018 shooting of Harith Augustus, who was running from police in the South Shore neighborhood when an officer shot and killed him as he appeared to break away from officers and move his hand toward his waistband, where he appeared to have a holstered gun.

Johnson at the time indicated the Police Department’s decision to release the footage was to quell the tension between police and protesters, even though there was much more video to review. Immediately after the shooting, there were initial reports on social media that Augustus did not have a gun.

“In this particular instance after seeing what transpired last night, I have an obligation to this city, to the community and to these police officers to make sure this city is safe and calm,” Johnson told reporters at the time. “And last night after what I saw on video, you know, bottles being thrown, urine being thrown at the police officers, we can’t have another night like that.”

In the letter, Roberts told Johnson his department shouldn’t be releasing any video while the shooting was still under investigation.

“This piecemeal and arguably narrative-driven video release breeds suspicions, which may ultimately undermine COPA’s ability to successfully investigate allegations of misconduct and officer involved shootings — an outcome inconsistent with the City’s efforts at reform,” Roberts wrote. “The Department electing to release video in an effort to quell public concern in this instance has the real potential to undermine the accountability process by establishing a dangerous precedent in which video is released only when it serves to justify the actions of Department members.

“That would be a step backward, not forward, for Chicago’s transparency efforts,” Roberts continued.

In 2019, the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based group that examines government accountability, co-authored a story that uncovered how more video existed in the Augustus case than Chicago police and COPA had previously released, further questioning the police narrative about the case. COPA is still investigating the shooting.

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