CHICAGO - After a leaked surveillance video reached the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the agency began investigating 23 Chicago police officers for alleged misconduct during violent demonstrations in late May 2020 sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
Two years later, COPA recommended suspensions for 12 of the officers, including some who did not intervene in what was happening on May 31. The recommendations ranged from one to 180 days.
But Police Supt. Brown objected to COPA’s findings that three officers of the officers used unnecessary force and asked the Chicago Police Board to approve lesser suspensions, which it has done over the objections of COPA.
Brown noted in his response to the civilian agency that many of the officers feared for their safety as protests from Floyd’s killing took hold in Chicago and erupted through the summer, at times accompanied by widespread looting.
On the day in question, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called in the National Guard to assist the police department. Access downtown remained limited. Amid the unrest, Chicago recorded 18 homicides, marking the single most violent day in the city in six decades.
The city’s former top watchdog and the federal monitor overseeing the department’s compliance with sweeping court-ordered reforms both ripped the response to the protests and unrest.
Officers were "outflanked, under-equipped and unprepared," and the department "critically disserved both its own front-line members and members of the public," former Inspector General Joe Ferguson wrote in a scathing 124-page report.
Anti-police demonstrations were ramping up across the country, but Brown insisted he "had not seen any reason for concern leading into that weekend," according to Ferguson’s report. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she didn’t assume there was "potential for peaceful protests to turn violent."
Yet in his letter disagreeing with some of COPA’s disciplinary recommendations, Brown acknowledged the downtown area was "overwhelmed by protests that became violent, resulting in rampant protesting, looting, arson and extreme property damage."
A video of the May 31 confrontation involving the officers in the Loop was sent to COPA on June 3, 2020. It shows officers facing off with protesters, some of whom began to throw things at the officers.
COPA’s report quotes the officers as saying the protests were "hostile" and "insane," like a scene "from a bad movie." The agency said it found some of the officers used excessive force, made improper arrests and failed to turn on their body cameras.
One of the officers told COPA the event was a "mass arrest incident" and he did not immediately activate his body camera because of the "hectic nature of the incident."
At least 15 of the officers failed to turn on their camera during the arrests, according to the COPA report. One officer, whose name was not released, allegedly gave the order to not record the arrests.
A protester interviewed during the investigation said he was pinned between two officers when another officer hit him in the groin with a bike. The protester responded by putting his arms out in defense when another officer pushed him to the ground and began to beat him with a baton, he told COPA.
"[He] began ‘army crawling, just out of pure instinct,’ as he did not know he was under arrest," the report said. "Suddenly, [he] felt intense pain in his leg and he realized an officer was sitting on his ankle and twisting his leg."
After three to five baton strikes to the knee, and additional strikes to his thighs and ribs, the protester was eventually restrained and picked up from the ground, according to the report.
Another protestor was quoted saying he witnessed several officers strike his friend in the head with a baton before shouting to stop resisting.
Following the arrests, several police officers were cited in the report for failing to fill out the required paperwork.
One of them, a bike patrol sergeant, said he did not receive any information about paperwork and could not recall who gave the order to begin arresting protestors.
Another officer on a bike team said he was instructed that mass arrest procedures and paperwork were already in effect.
Deputy Chief Michael Pigott allegedly told police officers before the protest that a "blanket" report was put in place for use of force during the protests. Pigott was cited for improper guidance on how to execute mass arrests. He left the force in May, 2021.
On Aug. 13, 2020 — after another wave of unrest that summer — former COPA Administrator Sydney Roberts announced that roughly 170 of the nearly 1,000 complaints filed against police officers since Floyd’s killing had prompted full-blown investigations.
COPA notably opened an investigation into a complaint from Ghian Foreman, the police board president, who claimed an officer repeatedly struck him with a baton during a protest in Kenwood. The incident happened the same day as the protests downtown that his body recently ruled on.
Two federal lawsuits were filed against police officers and the department in May of 2021. They alleged traumatic head injuries, head lacerations, rib bruises, leg pain as well as cuts and bruising.