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Police Oversight Ordinance Promised Transparency But Doesn’t Fully Deliver

A revamped agency takes a step backward in informing the public.

When Chicago’s new police oversight agency opened in September, city officials pledged a different way of doing business: Misconduct investigations would be transparent and the public would learn the outcomes quickly.

But even as the fledgling agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, makes more information available to the public, it also has taken a big step backward in one critical area.

Instead of making its reports public as soon as investigations are completed, as its predecessor did, COPA withholds the ones in which it found an officer at fault until the findings have been vetted by police officials and officers have been notified.

As a result, in its first two months of operation, COPA has yet to publish the results of a single case in which it has ruled against an officer. It could be months, or even longer, before those “summary reports” — which detail the allegations, investigative process, evidence and conclusions — are made public.

Sharon Fairley, who recently resigned as head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said she favored a city ordinance that would make the new police oversight agency more transparent. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)

The reason? The agency is hamstrung by the ordinance that created it. The law, pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, includes specific language preventing the agency from immediately sharing its reports with the public.

Sharon Fairley, who recently resigned as COPA’s chief administrator to run for Illinois attorney general, said she objected to that provision in the ordinance, passed by the City Council last year.

But, she said, she was overruled by the city’s Law Department.

“I felt for transparency purposes we wanted our reports to go out as soon as they were available,” Fairley said in a recent interview. “That process (will) be delayed by however much time it takes for the process to play out.”

That process can be lengthy. After COPA recommends discipline, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has up to 90 days to respond. If he disagrees with COPA’s findings, he can ask the agency to conduct additional investigation. If the two parties ultimately can’t agree, one member of the Chicago Police Board makes the decision.

That, too, is a departure from the past, when three police board members made the call.

Under the new ordinance, COPA is barred from posting its investigative reports — and any disagreement or pushback from the Police Department — until the review process has been completed and the officer is notified of the discipline. There is no deadline for that last step.

Under the ordinance that created the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the agency can't post reports for cases in which it concludes officers committed misconduct until the cases have been reviewed by the Chicago Police Department and the officer has been served with a notice of discipline (upper highlight). So while COPA closed an investigation on Sept. 26 in which it upheld misconduct allegations against two officers, its report is not available to the public (lower highlight).

University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, a frequent critic of the disciplinary process who has called for more transparency in misconduct investigations, said he sees no reason to wait to post COPA’s findings.

“The longer the delays, that diminishes trust and it diminishes transparency by not providing a prompt window into how the agency charged with investigating police misconduct is conducting its investigations,” he said.

City Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey defended the process.

“This change maintains the transparency of COPA’s reports while ensuring fairness to police officers, and also allows disciplinary decisions to be carefully considered without outside influences,” McCaffrey said in a statement.

Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Board president who also oversaw Emanuel’s police reform task force, said it makes sense to allow the Police Department to weigh in before COPA posts its investigative reports.

But she added that “clearly it is something we need to pay close attention to.”

COPA began operations Sept. 15 with a larger budget and broader authority to investigate misconduct complaints than its predecessor, the Independent Police Review Authority. IPRA was widely criticized for slow investigations that rarely concluded that officers had engaged in misconduct.

Lori Lightfoot, who leads the Chicago Police Board and oversaw Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police reform task force, said allowing the police department to weigh in before the Civilian Office of Police Accountability publicly posts investigative reports is appropriate. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As part of its vow to be more transparent, the new agency released general information last month on thousands of complaints received since 2007, including the findings in closed cases and the status of open cases. That information is in the city’s data portal, which is accessible to the public online.

The agency posted its first summary reports of closed investigations on its website in late October, when it shared findings for 12 cases closed the prior month.

But it only shared complete reports for the 10 investigations in which it cleared officers of misconduct. Information about the two cases in which officers were found responsible for wrongdoing — both involving firearm discharges, records show — won’t be posted until the cases have been reviewed by Police Department officials.

For those two cases, the site says only that COPA upheld the allegations against the officers.

By comparison, IPRA posted summaries of 125 cases from January until it closed Sept. 14, including findings of misconduct prior to the department’s review. Cases closed by IPRA as far back as January are still in the CPD review process, records show, a sign the process is taking longer than it should.

Emanuel’s police reform task force blamed the department’s drawn-out review process for adding “considerable time” to the disciplinary system. And a U.S. Justice Department investigation earlier this year found that significant delays contributed to an ineffective disciplinary system.

A police spokesman said the department has hastened the review process in the last year by giving supervisors a maximum of 15 days to review cases before they move to the next reviewer and ultimately to the superintendent.

Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, said the new ordinance doesn’t go far enough. He said reports still will be posted too soon since officers can challenge punishments after investigations are concluded and the final outcome can be different from what initially is recommended by COPA and approved by the Police Department. It can take years for officers’ appeals to be exhausted.

“I don’t think that COPA should be posting anything until everything is in and until the officer has exhausted all of his rights because, then, this is a final determination,” said Graham. “Looking at it halfway through does not give you a full picture of what has occurred.”

ProPublica Illinois data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati contributed to this report.

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.

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