Lightfoot Administration Refuses Mother’s Request for Full Watchdog Probe of Son’s Death

Shapearl Wells speaks to WTTW News near the site of her son’s murder in 2016. (WTTW News)Shapearl Wells speaks to WTTW News near the site of her son’s murder in 2016. (WTTW News)

Chicago officials will not release the full probe completed by the city’s inspector general into how the Chicago Police Department investigated the 2016 murder of a 22-year-old man, denying a request made by his mother.

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Courtney Copeland died while handcuffed after asking police officers for help after he was shot in March 2016. More than seven years after Copeland’s death, no one has been charged with his murder, and his mother, Shapearl Wells, won’t get any answers from the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In one of her last acts before resigning Friday as the city’s top lawyer, Corporation Counsel Celia Meza denied Wells’ request for the full probe conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, according to a Law Department statement requested by WTTW News.

Wells told WTTW News she remains determined to solve her son’s murder and will not stop demanding answers from the Chicago Police Department, which she said botched not only its response to Copeland’s plea for medical assistance but also the investigation into his murder.

Wells partnered with journalist Jamie Kalven and the Invisible Institute to create the podcast “Somebody,” a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist, that sought answers about both her son’s murder and the Police Department’s search for his killer.

Kalven said he was surprised by the decision not to release the report to Wells.

“It is an absurd denial that lacks human generosity,” Kalven said.

Copeland was driving a BMW on March 4, 2016, when he was shot in the back on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side. Copeland made it to the police station at Grand and Central avenues, the headquarters of the 25th Police District, and pleaded for help before collapsing.

Approximately 13 minutes passed before an ambulance carrying Copeland departed for a trauma center. In the ambulance, Copeland’s heart stopped, according to documents obtained by the Invisible Institute.

When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Copeland was in handcuffs, according to reporting by the Invisible Institute.

That reporting prompted former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to launch a probe into the investigation of Copeland’s death — and the treatment of Wells.

A summary of the results of that probe was released in January, as required by city law. But Wells wants the full report to be public as part of her effort to prevent another mother from suffering the same pain.

The Chicago City Council approved an ordinance in July 2019, backed by Lightfoot, that gave the city’s top lawyer the power to release investigations from the inspector general about cases involving deaths or felonies.

“The city remains committed to making our records available to the public to the fullest extent possible, consistent with all laws and regulations,” according to a statement from Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the Law Department.

The city’s top lawyer should not have the sole power to keep this report, and others, hidden from the public, Kalven said.

The probe recommended two members of the Chicago Police Department face discipline for the way they responded to Copeland’s death, but neither officer faced serious punishment. Neither was named in the summary of the inspector general’s report, in keeping with city rules.

No member of the Chicago Police Department documented when and why Copeland was handcuffed. In addition, a sergeant violated department policy by failing to require the police officer “who placed the victim in handcuffs at some point prior to transport accompanied them in the ambulance to the hospital,” according to the summary of the inspector general’s report.

The sergeant was reprimanded by police officials, but the department declined to impose harsher penalties on him because the inspector general failed to find “by a preponderance of the evidence that the victim was, in fact, handcuffed prior to being transported to the hospital,” according to the summary of the inspector general’s report.

The inspector general’s probe also found that a “detective who conducted the investigation into the victim’s homicide was disrespectful to or mistreated a member of the victim’s family during a meeting,” according to the summary of the report.

The detective resigned from the Chicago Police Department before the probe’s conclusion, and the inspector general recommended that he be ineligible to be rehired by the city. Chicago police officials declined to do so, although they placed a copy of the inspector general’s report in his employment file.

Since the probe into the investigation of Copeland’s murder involves a death and includes findings of misconduct, it meets the criteria to be released under the city’s law, but Meza is under no obligation to do so, Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg told WTTW News.

Lightfoot will leave office May 15.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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