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The Civilian Office of Police Accountability Must be More Than a Name Change

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability Must be More Than a Name Change

Today marks the end of the first week in action for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which replaces the widely criticized Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). The new agency is led by former IPRA Chief Shirley Fairley and has a 120 person staff—26 of whom worked under her at IPRA.

In addition to a larger staff than IPRA, COPA will have guaranteed funding from the CPD budget; increased and ongoing training for investigators; the ability to retain outside attorneys; a five year ban on former police officers becoming investigators; and it will require the release of all audio and video evidence of police misconduct within 60 days of the incident.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel ended the agency last year after years of community pressure and a Department of Justice report showing that IPRA rarely found officers at fault, and when they did officers often received little punishment. The pressure hit hardest after the year-long cover-up of the police murder of Laquan McDonald.

As steadfast advocates for holding police accountable, the attorneys at Shiller Preyar Law Offices (SPLO) remain cautiously optimistic that COPA will provide much needed changes to the way Chicago handles police misconduct.

While there is no community oversight component, it does appear that there are some significant changes from IPRA, and SPLO remains hopeful that there will finally be an actual check on police misconduct and abuse in this city.

At the same time, this is not the first time Chicago has promised better accountability. 

“I am hopeful that COPA will be different, but I am also cognizant of the past,” said SPLO Managing Partner Brendan Shiller. “I remember when the Burge story first came to light in the early 1990s and the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) was reorganized in response to the [Jon] Burge protests and nothing really changed.” 

Burge is a former police commander who oversaw the torture of over 200 Black men in his custody between 1972-1991. He was suspended from duty in 1991 and fired in 1993. It wasn't until 2010 that he was convicted on counts of obstruction of justice and perjury. He was released in 2014.

The OPS was founded by Superintendent James Rochford in 1975 after decades of community calls for police accountability stemming from countless abuses, murders, and cover-ups by the department. The Office was intended to be civilian-led but it was still headquartered in the police department and all disciplinary actions had to be approved by a board comprised of 99 police officers. 

Still, few complaints resulted in any action being taken against officers. Police abuses continued unpunished.

“I remember when Latanya Haggerty and [Robert] Russ were killed by police in the late 1990s and OPS was restructured again, with Lori Lightfoot taking the lead,” said Shiller. “And again nothing changed.”

Within one 24-hour period in June, 1999, Chicago Police officers killed Haggerty and Russ in separate incidents—both victims were unarmed. The city awarded Haggarty’s family 18 million dollars in 2001 and fired three officers involved with her death. Three years after his death the city awarded Russ’ child 9.2 million dollars; the officer who killed him was given a 15-day suspension.

At the time, Lori Lightfoot was a federal prosecutor who represented police officers in court. She was recently re-appointed to head the Chicago Police Board by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. There, she heads up a nine-person board, appointed by the mayor, that makes decisions about disciplining police officers.

“I remember when Officer Abbate beat a white woman in a bar in 2007, and OPS became IPRA,” said Shiller. “And again nothing changed.”

In 2007 OPS officially became IPRA following a police officer’s assault of bartender Karolina Obrycka, which was caught on camera and the widely circulated video led to an $850,000 payout and a conviction for the officer with two years parole.

 At the center of each of these cases was more than the individual harm; it was a code of silence deep within the police department that led to years of legal battles. And with police oversight, OPS couldn’t escape that criticism.

Officials promised that IPRA would truly be independent; the offices moved out of CPD’s, and the new agency would be required to produce reports for transparency that OPS never did. However, as of 2016, almost half of IPRA’s investigators were still there from OPS days, and the office relied on the police department for storage of files and other record keeping tasks.

IPRA has faced widespread criticism from community members, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and the Department of Justice. A report from the Civilians Police Data Project found that complaints filed by White Chicagoans were taken more seriously.

“Between 2011-2015 Black Chicagoans filed 61% of all complaints in the database, but make up only 25% of sustained complaints," the report says. "White Chicagoans––who filed 21% of total complaints––account for 58% of sustained complaints.”

 Many considered IPRA to be the same as OPS, but with a different name. Many fear this will be the same fate for COPA. 

In January the Department of Justice released its damning report on the Chicago Police Department, in which they discussed the implementation of COPA. While the Department commended the City on passing the ordinance that led to COPA the report conveyed concerns that the changes may not be enough.

“COPA’s success in the public eye will depend on how well it addresses the credibility crisis that IPRA faced for most of its existence,” the report says. "But the City must do more than a name change to repair the broken trust that surrounds this investigative agency, particularly since most residents remember the last time the City employed this same rebranding strategy eight years ago when it replaced OPS with IPRA."

“The City has made important strides in improving accountability," the report continues. "But the systemic and entrenched nature of the deficiencies we identified cannot be remedied by these reforms alone”

SPLO will be keeping an eye on COPA as we did with IPRA, follow our blog, Facebook, and Twitter to stay up to date.

Our attorneys fight to get justice for our clients and their families. If you have been victim to police misconduct and abuse contact our office today at 312-226-4590 or visit us at the Westside Center for Justice 601 S. California, Chicago, IL, 60612

Photo Attribution: Debra Sweet https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldcantwait/7025398493/

Blog Author: Christina Pillsbury, SPLO Social Media Marketing Manager

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