COPA documents show ‘racially charged’ comment allegation unfounded against several officers
by BRIAN NADIG
At least 13 Chicago police officers have been cleared of wrongdoing in connection with allegations made by former 45th Ward alderman John Arena that the officers made "racially charged" comments on social media about a mixed-income housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
On Jan. 11, 2018, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability launched an investigation into 32 police officers following complaints filed by the former alderman’s staff member.
In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act request, COPA released a document showing that the allegations against 13 of the officers were "unfounded." COPA did not respond to inquiries from Nadig Newspapers as to the status for the other 19 officers.
The recent FOIA requests were made by one of the officers whose allegation of "verbal abuse" was unfounded by COPA. The accountability office released hundreds of pages of documents and e-mails, but the vast majority was redacted, the officer said.
The request was filed by the officer because of the inability to get any information about the investigation since the officer was never served with a complaint. The officer added that COPA has not given written confirmation of its findings even though the office policy calls for an officer to receive a letter at the conclusion of the review process.
The provided documents included a digital recording of COPA investigators interviewing a Chicago detective who in the recording said that he never posted the comments on Facebook which he was accused of. "That’s not my post, nor is it my account," the detective said.
The investigators abruptly stop the interview after the detective tells them that the holder of the Facebook account is a relative who is not a police officer and that he does not have access to it. A verbal reading of the actual Facebook comments was bleeped out.
On the recoding, the detective’s attorney said that it was "an unlawful" investigation, and the detective said that he was answering questions due to concerns that he could face disciplinary action if he did not cooperate.
Only a small number of the officers reportedly were served with a complaint or interviewed by COPA, and in some instances officers may still be unaware that Arena’s office submitted their name to the accountability office, according to several police sources. Complaints filed against officers remain on their record even when they are determined to be unfounded, the sources said.
The complaints claimed that some officers were using "coded language" instead of being explicit in their views.
The FOIA documents also include the written transcripts of several other COPA interviews with accused officers. In some instances officers were asked to explain their views of Facebook postings that were about 5 years old and covered a variety of topics, including immigration, police shootings and President Donald Trump. A large number of the officers’ Facebook comments were redacted.
One officers was accused of making inappropriate comments in response to attacks which Arena apparently had posted on social media about Trump supporters. The sergeant said that he was offended by a statement which implied that Trump supporters are "uneducated" and "redneck."
Another officer was questioned about comments made on a news story about area high school students blocking a police car which had responded to a disturbance to a gas station in Norwood Park and about the use of the word "ghetto" in reference to the housing development.
The officer, who was cleared by COPA, told investigators that he did not represent himself as a police officer when he made the comments and that he brought up the housing proposal because the development site was near the gas station. The officer said that he was offended by the students’ actions and wanted to defend the officers who were trying to leave the gas station.
According to the transcripts, an attorney for one officer compared COPA’s questioning of an officer’s political views to "McCarthyism."
An Arena aide said that the complaints were necessary because the officers’ comments "chip away"at the public’s trust of the police department, according to one of the FOIA documents.
Several officers compared the 75-unit housing development, which will include 30 Chicago Housing Authority-subsidized apartments, to Cabrini Green, a large public housing development that the city had demolished several years ago.
Others were critical of Arena’s handing of the proposal and expressed concern about the project’s density.
Letters from Arena’s office to COPA and the Office of Inspector General state that the accused officers were not appropriately addressing the allegations against them and that there was a culture within the Chicago Police Department that allowed "this sort of behavior."
The Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 claimed that Arena’s allegations were "false" and represented an attempt to silence opponents to the housing development, whose construction is expected to start in early 2020.
Arena’s office kept a spreadsheet with the names of about 80 current and retired government workers, including about 15 Chicago firefighters, who reportedly were critical of the housing project or Arena’s handling of it. In 2018 the city released a copy of the spreadsheet in response to a FOIA request.
The Internal Affairs Division of the Chicago Fire Department launched investigations into several of the firefighters. The department did not respond to a request for an update on the investigations.
Arena, who lost his re-election bid last February, serves as a deputy commissioner in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.