Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!
Subscribe to the newsletter!
After 18 months of research and discussion, the Mayoral-appointed Citizen Police Complaint Assessment Committee (CPCAC) gave their final report and recommendations to the City’s Human Services Committee on Dec. 3. Matthew Mitchell presented the findings on behalf of the committee, composed of Karen Courtright, Dr. Meggie Smith, Jared Davis, Dr. Peter Demuth, Randy Foreman, Jeff Parker, Joi Russell, Dr. Vincent Thomas and Mr. Mitchell himself.
After some discussion, the Human Services Committee decided to defer further analysis and action until the new Police Chief had been announced (see story on page 1), and Ninth Ward Alderman Cicely Fleming, who chaired the Human Services Committee, asked the nine members of the CPCAC to remain engaged for the next few months.
Mr. Mitchell described the process and presented the findings and recommendations of the group. Afterward, Police Chief Richard Eddington, who will retire at the end of the year, offered some suggestions and cautionary advice.
The charge of the Citizen Police Complaint Assessment Committee was to examine how complaints against police officers are filed, handled and disposed of and to recommend changes where applicable. At present, a person who has a complaint against a police officer will file the complaint with the Police Department. The Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards investigates all complaints. The Police Chief has the sole authority over the disposition of the case, although an advisory civilian committee, the Civilian Police Advisory Committee, has the authority to review complaints and advise the Chief as to the disposition of a complaint.
The Human Services Committee has the authority to review each disposition and to send it back to the Chief for clarification. According to a memo from Assistant City Attorney Henry Ford, the Human Services Committee “is precluded from issuing discipline to a Police Officer because of conflicts with the City’s personnel manual, collective bargaining agreements/union contracts and Illinois law. However, HSC may play a role in obtaining information and transparency concerning police procedures that are related to complaints.”
CPCAC’s Dec. 3 report and recommendation said its members investigated the practices of other communities and found “there is no recognized singular best practice for handling civilian complaints against police officers. The consensus is that different communities should enact different systems to address concerns particular to that community.” The key attributes of best practices for overseeing civilian complaints against police officers, the committee found are credibility, integrity, fairness, due process, transparency and personal and structural accountability.
CPCAC’s Critique of the Current System
The CPCAC found problems in several aspects of the current process. Through personal interviews and a survey the CPCAC members found that civilians were concerned that police officers receive complaints about police conduct, that these officers have received little or no formal training for this task, that the officers appear to have discretion and a lack of impartiality in accepting the complaint, that there are not sufficient updates and feedback on the complaint and that there is no guidance about how officers should proceed if there was a “bad interaction” between a police officer and a civilian that did not involve the allegation of a violation. CPCAC members also found – through interviews and an online and paper survey – that some residents are hesitant to file a complaint because they fear retaliation or are uncomfortable going to the police station to file a complaint. Many residents are unaware that there is a process to file complaints against police officers.
The CPCAC recommended changes that they felt would make civilians feel more comfortable about making complaints against a police officer and aid in transparency in findings and dispositions of the complaints. The intake process could be expanded to allow non-police City staff to receive in-person complaints at the Civic Center and perhaps other places around the City. The City could purchase and implement universal case management software to allow tracking of the progress of the investigation.
Rather than hiring an independent investigator, the CPCAC recommended that the City hire an independent police auditor to oversee the complaint process, but have the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards continue to investigate complaints. Hiring an independent auditor would “address the potential bias and appearance of a conflict of interest, with the police investigating allegations of police misconduct,” the CPCAC said. They also said, “There are not allegations or evidence of serious police misconduct in the Evanston Police Department. Upon review of the OPS [Office of Professional Standards] investigative case files of civilian complaints, we find that they do a professional and thorough job.”
The CPCAC also recommended implementing an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process, to be used where appropriate instead of the investigative process and replace the Citizen Police Advisory Committee with a Civilian Review Board. Board members, appointed by the mayor for no more than two three-year terms, would hold monthly meetings to review all completed investigations of complaints –edited for privacy concerns – and would submit reports of their findings on each complaint to the Human Services Committee. The board would also discuss and make recommendations about policy matters.
The number or complaints filed against police officers is decreasing – only 10 have been filed so far this year. Whether residents in fact have fewer complaints about police behavior or are hesitant to formally file their complaints appears to be debatable. Recordings from body-worn cameras will provide more concrete and possibly more nuanced evidence of police-civilian interactions. What effect that will have on the number and nature of complaints remains to be seen.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said, “We heard from the Police Chief that having the body-worn cameras could tell the story from both sides. Using the body-worn comers, we would see a decrease in police complaints.” There have been only 10 complaints filed against police officers this year.
Mr. Mitchell said, “Body-worn cameras are a game-changer. I don’t know if they would alter the number of complaints.”
“It could be interesting to analyze what kind of impact the body-worn cameras are having,” said Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. “I would think that would be what’s bringing the numbers down.”
“If there is a question, the cameras speak more effectively and can clear it up,” said Ald. Braithwaite.
Mr. Mitchell said, “There’s no question of fact, but you can still have a disagreement about whether a complaint against a police officer is valid without disagreeing about the facts of what happened.”
Ald. Braithwaite said, “I think the fact of body-worn cameras and footage help to support the residents who are making complaints, and, at the same time, it creates a higher level of accountability for our police officers.”
Ald. Fleming asked whether the Human Services Committee could override the Police Chief’s disposition of a compliant.
“No, you do not have the power to do that,” said Chief Eddington but added, “There’s a more sophisticated way to go about that if you think it’s wrong. There’s a way to ask the questions to force your concerns to be answered. If we start off, ‘We don’t agree,’ we are starting at the wrong point. Ask for clarification – ‘This point was not clear. If it was clearer, it would prove or disprove the concerns that I have.’ It’s a building block to ‘I don’t agree with your decision.’ You [the Human Services Committee] have that latitude now.”
Chief Eddington also responded to some of the CPCAC’s findings and recommendations. A police officer taking a civilian complaint, he said, “is not going to blow his reputation” by showing bias during the intake process. “This is Evanston; we know each other.” He also pointed to the recent report by the Hillard Heintze [consulting firm] and said, “If they had concerns, they certainly would have brought it up, because their focus was on the command staff, the administrative staff that oversee these investigations.”
The Chief thanked the committee for the time they took in their months-long work. “This is a complex and unique set of circumstances,” he said adding that he wished to comment on other matters pertaining to the CPCAC report: context, perception, privacy, policy and budget.
Chief Eddington said, “I want to assure the community of the context. There are 70,000 recorded police activities in the database [so far]. From those, we have received 176 compliments and 10 complaints, I think that is critical – we don’t need to panic or rush through this. … This is going to have to wait for the next Chief.
“I would like you to consider the last time you were in an unpleasant situation and you thought one more layer of bureaucracy was the answer to your problem. I think if there’s a perception issue, we can talk to that perception rather than revise the entire process. Things can certainly be upgraded.”
The privacy of complainants is important, Chief Eddington said, advising caution about allowing access to complainant’s back stories. “I think the online tracking system is a good idea, but the issue is ‘Who has access to the tracking?’ One of the issues is ‘You can have a problem with police conduct, but you may not want to have exposed on the worldwide web how exactly we got that police conduct you’re unhappy with. It may be personal; it may be embarrassing. … Who gets that information has not been addressed as yet.”
As for policy, Chief Eddington said the Police Department uses Lexipol software for State-specific policy. “I would suggest that the City Council talk with the CPCAC. They have spent a lot of time and I think we should respect that collective work.” Referring to the past several weeks of wrangling, he said, “We’ve been through a bruising budget process. If you’re going to do something different, it’s going to cost money. I think we can be judicious in the speed with which we go forward. … I think you’ve heard the department is not broken. You have the luxury of time.”
Following the suggestion of Chief Eddington and some of the speakers at the public comment session of the committee meeting, Ald. Fleming said she would like the CPCAC committee members to stay involved and to return in the next few weeks, after the new Police Chief has been sworn in.