During a Nov. 1 City Council budget hearing, several West Side aldermen raised questions about how, specifically, the new civilian police oversight body will function as it relates to improving community and police relations in their neighborhoods. And some aldermen across the city sounded alarm because the proposed budget for the new body is less than what the ordinance creating the oversight body had called for. 

The new oversight body, called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, was created last October to replace the Independent Police Review Authority as the body responsible for investigating complaints against the Chicago Police Department. 

Unlike its predecessor, COPA can investigate allegations of illegal search and seizure, as well as domestic violence complaints — both of which were previously handled by CPD’s internal affairs office. COPA is also empowered to look for patterns of police misconduct and make legally binding recommendations to address them. 

According to the amended ordinance that created COPA, the oversight body’s budget must be no less than 1 percent of “the annual appropriation of all non-grant funds for the Police Department contained in the annual appropriation ordinance for that fiscal year.”

The city’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget sets the total appropriations for CPD at $1.49 million, while setting total appropriations for COPA at $13.3 million. One percent of CPD’s budget is $14.9 million — over $1 million higher than what COPA was budgeted. 

And when subtracting the nearly $36 million that CPD is expected to receive in grants, including grant funds that will carry over from last fiscal year, the CPD total budget drops to $1,46 million. One percent of that is $14.6 million — still a little under $1.3 million more than what COPA was budgeted. 

Judge Patricia Banks, COPA’s interim chief administrator, said during the Nov. 1 budget hearing that the agency’s budget was based on “our considered judgement on how to efficiently and responsibly run COPA as a new ‘best in class’ police oversight agency.” 

Banks said that the agency’s major priorities would be to train investigators and legal staff, build a new process to make it easier to assess the agency’s investigative files and allow civilians to keep better track of investigations, establish four satellite offices “in neighborhoods where there is a high volume of police interactions” to make it easier to file complaints, address the backlog of investigations COPA inherited from IPRA and do extensive community outreach to educate residents about COPA’s mission.

According to data provided by the agency, out of all of COPA’s new hires, 36 percent were African American, 50 percent were white, three percent were Asian and 10 percent were Hispanic. Out of the 41 newly hired African Americans, 14 were male and 27 were female. 

At last year’s IPRA/COPA budget hearing, Aldermen Jason Ervin (28th) and Chris Taliaferro (29th) both raised concerns about COPA’s hiring of blacks, particularly black men. 

During the Nov. 1 hearing, Ervin, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Michael Scott (24th) pressed Banks on the locations of the COPA satellite offices. The interim chief said that some locations are under consideration.

“We have identified locations,” she said. “When we move in those locations, we’ll be able to share them.”

Scott then asked whether there would be one location on each side of the city how the locations would be determined. Banks, however, declined to elaborate on this issue. 

“What we are going to do is make sure those satellites are placed appropriately in places where they do most good,” she said, adding that once the locations are nailed down, she will inform Scott and other aldermen.

COPA has already done some outreach through community meetings organized by Ervin and Taliaferro, among other aldermen. Scott said that, while those were helpful, he felt that sending some information to ward offices directly would help even more.

“What you’re suggesting in terms of reaching out and dealing with aldermanic offices — that’s what we do,” Banks replied. “It’s a proper way, and I think its most effective way of reaching out to citizens of Chicago.”

Ervin said that he was concerned about COPA’s mediation program for officers, saying that he felt like officers were “copping a plea” in the process. 

The interim chief replied that she felt that mediation was a good thing in cases that don’t involve “very serious” allegations.

“In some instances, what we’d like to do is parse off some of the cases that are more ‘minor’ in nature,” Banks said. “Our goal is that, in conclusion of that mediation, both parties will go away with a better understanding of what did or didn’t go wrong. An officer might walk away from it saying ‘maybe I shouldn’t have said what I had.'”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) noted that one of the complaints against IPRA was that complaints took years to investigate and wondered what COPA would do differently.  Banks responded that they have “layers and layers of supervisors” to move investigations along and that the agency would be looking at why some investigations are taking longer than others and what it could do to change that.

Moore also said that there have been criticisms that IPRA’s police shooting investigations never found officers at fault and asked Banks to respond to that.

“It’s not IPRA — it’s COPA, and COPA is moving forward, and we’re going to do what we need to do to reach conclusion to those investigations,” she replied. “If the facts fall on [the side of officer’s guilt], we want to back this finding up. If it’s not sustained, we got to back this finding up.”

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...