More details about what the Civilian Office of Police Accountability would be like emerged during the Oct. 25 budget hearing.
The City Council approved the new agency during its Oct. 5 meeting by a 39-8 vote. It will replace the Independent Police Review Authority as the body that’s responsible for investigating police misconduct complaints.
Unlike its predecessor, COPA would have power to investigate allegations of illegal search and seizure, as well as domestic violence complaints currently investigated by CPD’s Internal Affairs. It would be able to hire its own independent attorneys, instead of having to rely on the city’s legal department. The body would also have the power to look for patterns of misconduct and make legally binding recommendations for addressing them.
During the hearing, Sharon Fairley, IPRA chief administrator and COPA’s transitional chief administrator, told the aldermen that she expects most current investigators to get jobs with the new agency. Some administrators may transfer to COPA and some may have to reapply, but the details of that part of the transition still need to be worked out.
Most of the aldermen who spoke at the hearing said they were optimistic about COPA’s rollout, even if they had issues with some of the details.
Under the FY 2017 budget proposal, COPA must be operational by Sept. 30, 2017. Until then, IPRA will continue functioning in order to facilitate a smooth transition. As a result, the proposed budget proposal allocates to COPA and IPRA smaller budgets than the latter received last year.
COPA would get $7,194,928, while IPRA would get $2,896,323. By comparison, IPRA’s 2016 budget was $8,460,483.
The new agency would have 44 more employees than its predecessor, with 13 of them being new investigator positions. Fairley told the aldermen that, while all current investigators will have to reapply for their jobs, she expects that the “substantial portion” of them will have no problem meeting the new qualifications.
“The qualifications for the investigator job will be more robust than [those for IPRA],” she said. “We believe that many investigators at IPRA will meet those qualifications.”
While all the aldermen who spoke said that they were hoping for the best, they had a number of questions.
Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), who chairs the city council’s Committee on Public Safety, told Fairley that he’s heard concerns about how long it would take to get COPA going.
“We’re working very hard right now,” she replied. “We’re populating the agency with talented investigators and providing them with training. We’re also looking to build the right infrastructure within the organization.”
Reboyras also said that the Fraternal Order of Police, the collective bargaining unit for Chicago police officers, was worried that the new organization would be too punitive. Fairley replied that she understood that concern, but she was confident that it was unfounded.
“The police accountability infrastructure that COPA is part of is meant to be neutral,” she said. “It is meant to provide a fair process both to the complainant and the [officer].”
Reboyras also asked Fairley to respond to concerns that COPA was little more than IPRA with a different name. She replied that the new agency would have more resources then its predecessor, more supervisors to monitor the quality of investigations and that they would have independent legal advice.
The alderman said that he spoke to police officers who wished that COPA employees would shadow the members of the police force, so they would understand the officers’ perspective. Fairley replied that she would be open to that.
“Several modules of the [employee] training will be the same training the officers get at the academy,” she added.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who voted against he COPA ordinance, because she felt it was rushed and didn’t go far enough, pressed Fairley on what she would do to improve the quality of police misconduct investigations. Failey replied that making sure investigations don’t drag on for years, unless there is a good reason, will be a major priority of the new body.
“[We will] create a culture where quality and timeliness are valued,” Fairley said.
She also said that, unlike IPRA, which relied on an “antique” CPD computer system, COPA will build its own software, which would be better suited for its needs. One of the things it will have are “timeliness triggers,” similar to what attorneys have. Fairley also said that COPA would have more supervisors to help ensure that investigators do their jobs well.
Ald Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer who also voted against the COPA ordinance, said that he was worried that, even though the new agency would have more investigator positions, it still wouldn’t be enough to handle the workload.
“I’m looking at 60 [investigators] that will be at COPA, and it looks like you got quite a few supervisor personnel,” the alderman said. “It looks like you guys are very supervisor-heavy, rather than investigator-heavy, and given that you’re going to assume Fourth Amendment [unreasonable search and seizure] investigations now from the [CPD] Bureau of Internal Affairs – that’s a lot of investigations.”
Fairley replied that, if one counts major case specialists, the number is actually higher. She also said that having 15 supervisors was necessary; fewer, she said, would entail each supervisor being saddled with too many investigators to do his or her job effectively.
Taliaferro then asked about the investigators’ caseloads. Fairley replied that they would be investigating 13-20 cases on any given month, and they would be expected to close at least two of them per month.
The alderman said that he was also worried that it would create an ever-growing backlog of investigations, increasing the pressure on staff.
“We’ll get to the point where investigations are rushed,” Taliaferro said. “I’d really like you to consider hiring more investigators, so that the quality of investigations will be taken into account.”
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), another former police officer who voted against the ordinance, urged Fairley to have COPA staff talk with community organizations to hear out their concerns. Fairley said that it would be part of the new agency’s extensive community outreach.
Fairley said that COPA’s outreach comprises two components, including “robust community engagement” and making “data that’s of robust interest to the public” available on COPA’s website.
“The idea is for the public to be able to see work as it happens,” Fairley said.
During the second round of questions, Fairley noted that COPA will have a civilian advisory board, which would include legal experts and community activists.
Taliaferro asked if COPA could hire more black men, especially in administrative positions.
“We have a lot of male blacks,” Fairley said. “We don’t set goals for our diversity specifically, but we recruit in the manner that we hope will create a diverse workforce.”
For example, she said, when it comes to hiring legal staff, she approached black and Hispanic attorney associations. But both Taliaferro and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said that more needed to be done with respect to hiring black men.