Shapearl Wells. Illustration by Savanna Steffens

A Mother’s Investigation

Q&A with Shapearl Wells, mother of the murdered Courtney Copeland and cohost of a new podcast exploring racial disparities and distrust of the Chicago Police Department, and Invisible Institute journalist Alison Flowers

Before George Floyd begged Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for his life under a lethal chokehold, on the night of March 4, 2016, twenty-two-year-old Courtney Copeland had begged Chicago police officers for help after he was shot in his car near the 25th District police station on Chicago’s northwest side. 

Copeland could likely have survived the injury had the officers on duty that night treated him as a victim of a shooting, rather than a suspect. But the officers handcuffed Copeland and delayed calling an ambulance. And when the ambulance did arrive, it took him to a trauma center five to ten minutes farther than the nearest one.  It was this disparity that determined Copeland’s fate: his heart stopped just four minutes before they arrived at the hospital.

Somebody is a podcast by and about Copeland’s mother, Shapearl Wells, and her search for answers when the Chicago Police Department didn’t provide them. It took Wells four years, and a partnership with journalists at the Invisible Institute, to uncover information that should have been revealed days after the murder. And still to this day, no one has been charged in Copeland’s murder. 

Wells is the podcast’s primary narrator. There is something special about that. You can feel her tenacity and strength. But you also get a sense of what it is like to be a mother who has lost her son, and who also now faces a system that places little value on his life. In this way, Somebody offers a unique perspective on police accountability and the tenuous, tense relationship police have with the communities they’re supposed to protect.

Somebody is a seven-part podcast (plus a bonus episode, a June conversation between Wells and Invisible Institute director Jamie Kalven) produced by the Invisible Institute, The Intercept, and Topic Studios, in partnership with iHeartMedia and Tenderfoot TV. It is available to stream on all podcast platforms. 

The Weekly interviewed Wells and Invisible Institute producer Alison Flowers about the production of the podcast, the investigation, and what it means for police accountability and citizen trust going forward. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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How did the idea for Somebody come about, and why did you choose to make it a podcast? 

Alison Flowers: During Shapearl’s investigation, she had made these voice diaries that were very powerful and emotional. She also had the recordings of her conversation with police, so we thought a podcast would be the best way to tell this multi-part story. It also had to do with Shapearl herself, and the way she really commands the story. In the tradition of investigative journalism podcasts, typically it’s the reporter who would host, but we decided to disrupt the genre and asked Shapearl if she would voice the podcast; we felt [this] made the story more inclusive. I think journalists need to be okay with taking a back seat, and sharing more power with their sources, and work[ing] with them to tell their own stories. I think th[at this is] part of why it’s really resonating with listeners. 

Shapearl, have you ever hosted a podcast before or done a similar project? 

Shapearl Wells: Absolutely not. This was the first time that I had done something this extraordinary. 

AF: From a craft perspective, we did multiple in-depth interviews with Shapearl near the beginning of our relationship with her. This served as a template for the series. Every script went through multiple rounds of feedback from Shapearl, even when we were in the studio to report the narration, we made even more tweaks based on how she would prefer to say it or how it came out naturally in the moment. Shapearl was involved every step of the way, and definitely took the lead in the process. 

What was it like revisiting all the moments of your investigation as the host of this podcast? 

SW: It took me back to remembering what happened with my son, it took me through all those moments. It was difficult, but it was a necessary process in order to get the story told. I felt like it was a labor of love. Even though there was so much pain involved in it, I thought that it was essential that someone hear what happened to Courtney. 

Initially your investigation led you to think that the police were responsible for shooting Courtney. How did you work through the production of the podcast as what you were learning about what happened to Courtney changed? 

AF: Even while we were putting the series together, we were still investigating. We had entire episodes turned upside down because of developments in the case. 

SW: In episode three, when we experienced the shift away from thinking the police did it, that was when I went through the whole process of ‘if the police did it versus if the police didn’t do it’. Everyone was on the same page in that we wanted to come to a conclusion, but we wanted the evidence to lead us to whatever it was. Everybody makes mistakes, and we recognized the mistake and we didn’t continue it. We didn’t continue that it was CPD [who did it], instead we corrected it and continued with our investigation. When Jamie left me that day, which I say in the podcast, [he said] we now need to ‘investigate our own investigation,’ which means that we want to be one-hundred percent correct on everything before we took this investigation out, because integrity is the most important part of the podcast.

AF: When we walked back our thinking about the police’s involvement in Courtney’s murder, what we realized is we end up with a story about everyday systemic racism in Chicago. It looked at the encounters that contribute to such discord and distrust between the public, especially communities of color, and Chicago police. Looking at what we thought might have been one of the rare, yet terrible, incidents of the police killing a young Black man actually allowed us to explore a much more common occurrence: negative and racist encounters that citizens have with the police. That was an important shift, and it also allowed us to look at other aspects of police accountability: it’s not just about police killing Black people, it’s about deprioritizing their cases [and] having such a low murder solve rate for Black citizens in Chicago and conducting very superficial investigations. All of that was part of this picture of police accountability, that we tried to create from multiple angles. 

One of the most powerful parts of the podcast for me were the recordings of the conversations Shapearl had with the investigating officers. Shapearl, how did you feel when you were in those rooms? 

SW: My encounters with the CPD were very hostile. They were very disrespectful and dismissive to me. I felt that I was the only one who cared about solving my son’s murder. I still feel that way. I still feel they didn’t do a good enough job to solve his murder. Essentially what the podcast breaks down is that the information I gave them four days after my son was murdered, was really the information they needed to solve the murder. To this day, they still haven’t followed up with that information. 

My encounters with police just show me the lack of respect they have for Black mothers, and the lack of concern they have for Black lives. Everything was more about them and how I was making them feel. They felt I was questioning their authority, and that I didn’t have the right as a mom to question their right to process this case. I was standing my ground, even though I felt intimidated at times. I still stand my ground, because it is important to me to convey to them that I am not going to stop. I want you to find out who killed my son, so everything I’m doing is to push you to do the job you’re supposed to do. How I feel now is that this podcast, and the constant pressure [I’m putting on them], is the only way Courtney’s murder is going to get solved. If you let CPD decide which cases they want to solve, it’s more than likely that it will not be cases involving Black people. 

AF: I’ll add that in the investigation, we were looking at how the police treated Courtney but also at how they were treating Shapearl. The way they talked to a grieving mother just says it all about how they regard Black people as a whole. 

When did you realize you needed to take the investigation into your own hands? 

SW: From my first encounter at the hospital, when they couldn’t give me any information. They didn’t know where or what happened to my son. When I talked to them the next day, they still didn’t have any information. I thought “Okay, let me just give my son the justice he deserves, and get down to the business of solving this murder.” It was almost immediate.

We went into the neighborhood to try to gather as much information as possible because I felt that time was of the essence. If we were to solve this murder, we had to get information fast, while everything was still fresh in people’s heads. They were not giving me enough information about what happened to my son, and to me, they were just okay with taking their sweet time. When I went to that first meeting with them, I was expecting answers on what they had seen on video and what they hadn’t seen. I expected a more thorough investigation, and they hadn’t even begun it. What bothered me the most [was] that they took the word of the officers at face [value], and didn’t further investigate to make sure they had pulled the right information from the witnesses. It just seemed like to me that they were not concerned with solving the murder. 

As of now, has the the murder been solved? Do you know who shot Courtney?

SW: No, it’s still up in the air. We presented the detectives with a lot of evidence and potential suspects that they have yet to follow up on; they do not care. I can count on one hand how many times I talked to detectives, and they have yet to give me any pertinent information about my son. I always brought them information, some of which they still deny, like the fact that my son was in handcuffs. So I have no confidence in CPD solving this murder.

AF: We hit a point in the case where we felt compelled to go back to the same detectives for a follow up conversation. There had been another incident in the neighborhood, and we felt it was best to make them aware of what we had heard at that point. So we met with the detectives again, and gave them a roadmap to the case as best we could with what we had uncovered together. But a year after the meeting I happened to run into one of the detectives, and he called Shapearl after, but it was clear that they really hadn’t followed up on any of the leads or additional witnesses we had given them. It appeared that they had not been solving it:  [they] put it in the cold case unit, and they included the wrong corner Courtney was shot on and identified the wrong neighborhood, [saying] that he was Portage Park [when]  he was actually shot in Belmont Cragin. Again, it just shows the complete lack of care and detail they paid to this case, in getting it right, and in trying to get it across the finish line. 

What was it like working together? Did either of you realize it was going to take so long? 

SW: I didn’t realize it was going to take so long, but I was okay with that, because my ultimate goal was to get answers for Courtney so however long it took, it didn’t really matter. I just wanted to get the information to bring closure to my situation, and to try to bring awareness to the injustices that he endured. 

I couldn’t think of a better partnership. I felt that this [podcast] was my baby, and me encompassing all that happened, and I felt that they carried that same love for Courtney that I carried for him. This story became their story as well, so I couldn’t ask for a better partnership. 

AF: Shapearl and I were in constant contactsometimes even in the middle of the night we would send each other text messages, [going over] details that we kept coming back to. It was intimate, it was involved, [it was] intense. We advanced the case together, taking what Shapearl did on her own and using that as a launching pad for more information. 

There was [also] the process of telling the story together. It’s hard to ask someone to talk about the most painful event of their life multiple times. When it came to narrating it, that was difficult and we wanted to spare Shapearl from any more trauma. But it was [still] a very painful process for everybody. I can think of one example, where she’s narrating the scene beside Courtney’s hospital bed. When you’re putting together the podcast episode, typically you do a rough take and then you get some additional sound design, and then later you come back for the final, with any revisions. But for that scene, we only asked her to read it once, so the take that you hear, in episode one, is the only take, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful and emotional. I felt good about the decision to not ask her to do it again, and I also think it wasn’t a question of improving it, it was as raw and as powerful as it could ever be. From a production standpoint, the texture of it doesn’t match the rest of the narration, but we felt completely okay with that.

There is a bonus eighth episode in which you have a conversation with Jamie Kalven about our current moment of civil resistance. Shapearl, you describe the movement for Black lives and police accountability as an “existing undercurrent that has risen up, and is now overflowing”. How do you reflect on this moment, and how is Courtney’s story relevant? 

SW: Stories of police and state violence have always been rampant. It’s just now, because of social media and technology, we’re seeing more of it. What you’re seeing now is Black people actually rebelling against the system. They’re tired of being tired and silent, and they’re beginning to raise their voices. And we’re not doing it alone, which is what we talk about in the episode. We’re seeing a collaboration with Black and brown people, and white people who are understanding the history of systemic racism in America. We have always had issues with police and police brutality. This is nothing new. But what we’re seeing is the undercurrent is rising up, people are saying enough is enough. They’re tired of it, and something has to change. That’s why we’re forcing the issue right now. 

For me, with George Floyd, just like how he begged for his life, my son also begged for his. He was begging the police to help him, to assist him in his time of need. But [the police] allowed my son to die. Even though they didn’t pull a trigger, the outcome was still the same: they still disregarded his life and he died in their hands, and it was unnecessary. I felt that my son could have been at the hospital within five to seven minutes if they had recognized the urgency and they cared about Black lives. You see people out here trying to tell America, “hey look what’s happening!” It’s not that all lives don’t matter, or blue lives don’t matter, but we as Black people are under attack, at an enormous and alarming rate. Youhear George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, those highlighted names, but there are so many more invisible people who have died. There are so many people like Courtney who never get the attention to their story, and they suffered the same consequences. 

Do you feel hopeful for change? How do you think we as a society will move forward? 

SW: The first thing is we all have to recognize we have a problem. What I’d like to see is tangible evidence of change. There’s a lot of people like legislators who say, ‘yes we agree that Black lives matter.’ Well, what are you going to do to make a change? Until we have tangible legislation that makes significant changes [to] hold them accountable like [police] malpractice insurance, a nationwide police database, and [police] licenses just like doctors and lawyers have. Specifically with Courtney, implementing scoop and run, that is something that is essential to save more Black lives. The fact that my son lay bleeding on the ground for thirteen minutes before he was even put in an ambulance, and they took him to a hospital [farther] away, that cost my son his life.

AF: These issues used to be such a niche for journalists, but now many are covering these as part of a general assignment reporting beat. The dialogue has changed. To see NASCAR saying “BLM” is not something any of us imagined happening. Not that saying the phrase is everything, there’s a lot of policy changes that need to happen everywhere, but naming it is so important. I would have thought we were very far off from having an op-ed in the NYT by Mariame Kaba about abolishing the police. There’s a lot of disagreement and discourse about what that should look like, but now politicians are starting to get uncomfortable and looking at how their constituencies are feeling about this. It does give me some hope. 

Why should someone listen to Somebody right now? 

SW: It’s important for us to understand the police mentality that is actually hidden. It’s easy for us to see the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. But what we also need to see is how everyday encounters with Black people and police occur. That’s one perspective from Somebody. Another perspective, as Alison said, is how they interact with families, how they’re solving these cases, how they prioritize these cases. All of these are forms of disparities of how Black and brown people are treated in all aspects of law enforcement. I think it’s important for us to broaden our vision about what’s really happening to Black and brown people in America. 

The Courtney Copeland Memorial Foundation was created in Copeland’s honor to invest in programs to help youth in inner city communities. You can learn more or donate on their website at thecourtneycopelandmemorialfoundation.com. 

Correction, Thursday, June 25: The hospital to which Courtney Copeland was taken was five to ten minutes farther than the closest one, not fifteen minutes as originally written.

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Amy Qin is a writer from Chicago. She last wrote for the Weekly in 2019 about the effort to save St. Adalbert Church from being closed.

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