COPA to start in mid-2017 with 45 percent more staff than IPRA

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The budget Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced on Tuesday includes details on new police oversight efforts and their cost. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Chicago’s new Civilian Office of Police Accountability will start its work with a six-month, $7.2 million budget and 141 employees, a 45 percent increase over the staff assigned to its ineffectual predecessor: the Independent Police Review Authority.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2017 budget also includes a $1.8 million annual budget and 25 employees for the new, $137,052-a-year deputy inspector general for public safety charged with auditing police practices, identifying troubling trends, recommending changes to the police contract and bird-dogging the new, multi-tiered system of police accountability.

The spending plan outlines a longer-than-expected transition from IPRA to COPA. IPRA will remain in place until mid-year, with 97 employees and a six-month budget of $2.9 million, before ceding authority to COPA.

IPRA chief Sharon Fairley will preside over both the new and old agencies because Emanuel has postponed indefinitely the appointment of a civilian oversight board that will choose the new permanent COPA chief.

The mayor’s 2017 budget overview ties the increase in budget and staffing to COPA’s broader charge.

“COPA will have more authority to investigate serious, individual incidents of police misconduct and will make recommendations for discipline and for changes to the Police Department’s practices and policies,” the overview states.

“In addition to the serious cases investigated by IPRA, COPA will also investigate improper search and seizure, denial of access to counsel and other constitutional violations. Additionally, COPA will be empowered to complete administrative investigations while a criminal case is pending.”

Even though IPRA is hemorrhaging staff, the overview states that the agency “will remain in operation through mid-2017 to ensure a proper transition of duties and powers.”

Last week, the City Council approved the first two parts of Emanuel’s police accountability overhaul: COPA and the new public safety IG.

Critics were concerned that, so long as the mayor and City Council hold the purse strings, neither of the new oversight agencies would be truly independent.

To reassure them, Emanuel agreed to give COPA a guaranteed budget of one percent of the Chicago Police Department’s budget — not including grant funding.

That guaranteed a dramatic increase from the $8.4 million IPRA budget police reform advocates have called so totally inadequate, it virtually guarantees that investigations of police wrongdoing will drag on for months or even years.

The increased budget is particularly important, considering the fact that COPA will inherit an expanded annual caseload tied to its broader powers.

Also in line for a guaranteed budget was the new public safety IG.

Instead of requiring Inspector General Joe Ferguson to add those formidable responsibilities to his already crowded plate without any additional funding beyond the one-tenth of one percent of the overall city budget he already receives, the mayor’s ordinance promised to increase Ferguson’s budget to .14 percent of the city budget.

The mayor’s budget fleshes out the details of how many employees will be assigned to both new entities and how long the transition from IPRA to COPA will take.

Police Board President Lori Lightfoot co-chaired the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability that branded IPRA so “badly broken” it needed to be abolished. She also recommended the 1 percent budget floor. But Lightfoot questioned the long transition from IPRA to COPA at a time when Emanuel desperately needs to restore public trust shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“We’re in a period of serious crisis. The new organization has an important role in restoring public confidence,” Lightfoot said.

“The new organization needs to be fully functioning as quickly as possible. It’s important for people to have confidence and understanding that this is a new day in the way in which serious allegations against police officers are being investigated.”

A closer reading of the mayor’s budget also includes a few more tidbits tied to public safety:

  • Five years after Emanuel closed mental health clinics, the Department of Public Health plans a series of mental health initiatives in an apparent attempt to improve public safety. A “triage center” will be opened at the Roseland mental health facility. Staff from Cook County Jail will “co-locate” at the West Town clinic “to provide services to those who recently left the criminal justice system.” And Thresholds will “open a new mental health facility” at the department’s Lakeview center.
  • In addition to embarking on a two-year plan to hire 970 additional police officers, the mayor plans to continue a “civilianization” process he started last year by returning to street duty 44 sergeants currently “acting in administrative functions.”
  • 9,700 Chicago Police officers are qualified to use Tasers and more than 6,000 “new users” have passed the annual recertification training.
  • In 2017, the Chicago Fire Department will “fully transition” to the city’s automated payroll and time-keeping system. Only then will the Fire Department “better track and assign personnel for overtime and other staffing requirements, such as special events,” the budget states.
  • Maintenance of four public safety helicopters will be turned over to the city’s Department of Fleet and Facilities Management next year to “improve efficiency and eliminate duplicative operations.” The Police and Fire Departments currently utilize “two separate vendors” for helicopter maintenance.
  • The city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications plans to embark on the two-year process of establishing an “emergency planning protocol for the mass care of individuals impacted” by a disaster. “Mass care includes sheltering residents after a disaster, feeding and family assistance. The project will focus on educating key stakeholders and partners about mass care and providing plans for sheltering and family assistance after a disaster,” the budget overview states.
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