We’ve heard both versions of the story too often, tragic trajectories that begin with being a young Black man in Chicago and end in murder, either by police or by somebody else. In March 2016, as the city was reeling from the Laquan McDonald scandal and entering what would be its bloodiest year in two decades, 22-year-old Courtney Copeland wound up with a bullet in his back in front of the 25th District police station in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, on the northwest side. He was shot as he was driving his BMW late at night to see his girlfriend. He spent his last moments trying to get help from the cops at the station, who handcuffed him and treated him like a suspect, leading to precious minutes lost in getting him potentially lifesaving medical care. It took his mother four years and a collaboration with journalists to figure out what happened that night–a story that police were in a position to put together within days of the murder.
Somebody is a new podcast about what Copeland’s mother, Shapearl Wells, had to endure to get answers from the Chicago Police Department. It’s a series that not only establishes narrative justice for her son–who she felt was misrepresented in scant prior media coverage–but offers a close look at the carelessness and incompetence with which this murder investigation was handled and how the department treated the loved ones of the victim and the community where the violence happened. The podcast was produced by Invisible Institute reporter (and sometimes Reader writer) Alison Flowers and StoryCorps prodcuer Bill Healy, but it’s unique in the true crime genre for Wells’s involvement and centrality to the story. She’s the host and narrator of the show, and she has led the investigative work that should have been done by police.
Wells says she contacted the Invisible Institute for help after reaching a dead end with her own efforts. She wasn’t able to get answers from detectives, no arrests had been made, and given the circumstances of the murder, Wells suspected a cop might have killed her son.
“I was at my wit’s end, I had exhausted all my options and I knew I needed to enlist some help in order to dig deeper,” says Wells. “I felt that having someone else to add pressure to CPD would definitely increase my chances of getting to the bottom of what happened.”
The podcast producers ultimately filed about 100 FOIAs, obtaining video, documents, and police records that CPD had told Wells didn’t exist. They interviewed dozens of witnesses, including people who’d never heard from the cops even after reporting relevant information. They identified the location of the shooting and three suspects. The podcast includes recordings of Wells’s conversations with detectives that reveal officers who are dismissive and defensive, seemingly more concerned with their authority being challenged than solving the murder. What’s more, the attitude of the police doesn’t change even when another person is murdered in a BMW in the same area more than two years later, likely by the same people.
“What I learned is that the reason why Chicago’s murder solve rate is so abysmal is because there’s not a lot of effort done in finding the killers that are out here plaguing our community,” Wells says. “I felt that because I was doing their job for them they felt offended during my interactions with them. But I shouldn’t have to do what they’re getting paid thousands of dollars to do, that’s their job. If you’re not investigating these cases, what are you doing?”
CPD’s murder clearance rate is among the lowest in the nation, and it’s even worse if the victim is Black. Between January 2018 and July 2019, for example, the police solved 47 percent of murders with white victims, and just 22 percent of those with Black victims, according to data reported by WBEZ. Usually, officials blame investigators’ failure to solve cases on lack of community collaboration. Somebody tells a starkly different story.
“Certainly there is a lack of trust and a lot of Black people feel that the police is an occupying force in their neighborhoods,” Flowers says. “But in this case, what the detectives told us was ‘We tried and people in the neighborhood just aren’t talking.’ And we found the opposite. All of this could have been known within days. The people who gave us this evidence were willing to talk to police . . . Everything that [the police] did was incredibly superficial, there was sloppy follow-up, and ultimately just a really shallow investigation.”
No one’s been charged with Copeland’s murder to this day. CPD has reclassified the murder as a “cold case” and still advertises it on their social media–citing the wrong neighborhood and cross streets for the incident. Wells still wants justice, but she knows it likely won’t come through the courts. She hopes that the podcast will, at the very least, impact protocols and operations among Chicago’s emergency responders (such as handcuffing a person who’s been shot), so that victims of violence don’t wind up being treated like they’re nobody.
Somebody is available on all podcast platforms. The final episode drops on Tuesday, May 12. The Invisible Institute will host a virtual listening party for the final episode at 3:00 PM on Tuesday, May 12, followed by a discussion with Shapearl Wells. Sign up for free at: bit.ly/somebodylistening. v