Andy Shaw: City Hall inches closer to real police reform

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Speaking to the Chicago City Council in December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel admitted that a “code of silence” exists in the city’s police department. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Is the Fifth Floor of City Hall finally ready for police reform?

After numerous delays the signs are encouraging, based on recent reports outlining significant changes in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s oversight reform ordinance.

Whatever ordinance the City Council ends up passing will replace IPRA, the much-maligned Independent Police Review Authority, with COPA, a more empowered Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

The ordinance also adds a public safety deputy with his or her own staff to the city Inspector General’s office to conduct audits and reviews of every agency involved in public safety.

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After the mayor’s office released an incomplete draft of the ordinance in August, the Better Government Association joined other critics in urging the City Council to give these new offices budget security and the power to hire outside attorneys.

These watchdogs shouldn’t have to appear before the City Council each year to plead for enough money to do their jobs. Their important responsibilities require guaranteed resources. In addition, lawyers representing police officers accused of misconduct shouldn’t have a role on oversight bodies responsible for investigating the same cops.

The reforms — independent budgets and independent counsel — are common-sense provisions designed to insulate these critical oversight agencies from the political whims of elected officials.

The mayor’s apparently been listening.

In his latest draft, both agencies have an established budget floor, and with some restrictions, COPA can hire outside attorneys for advice, representation and enforcement of subpoenas.

It’s worth noting that the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, doesn’t have independent subpoena enforcement power, but that’s a reform fight for another day.

As for the COPA ordinance, there are other bright spots, including authority to recommend revisions in police collective bargaining agreements, which have historically included problematic provisions that undermine investigations of alleged misconduct.

The ordinance also authorizes COPA to review an officer’s complaint history in any new investigation, which makes it imperative to keep good records.

But here’s the problem: The current police contract calls for destruction of misconduct allegations older than four years.

You can’t review a complaint history that isn’t there.

So the BGA and others have been fighting for the preservation of decades of misconduct records on two fronts: legislative and legal. Those fights continue.

To that end, we’re urging the City Council to review the next police contract with a fine-toothed comb and reject any deal that contains a records destruction provision.

We also hope the aldermen don’t approve the latest COPA draft, which is likely to come up for a vote on Wednesday, without considering a few remaining questions:

+ Should former non-sworn police department staffers or ex-employees of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office be permanently barred from applying for the top COPA job, or just constrained by the five-year cooling-off period currently included in the ordinance?

+ Should there be an enforcement mechanism to ensure the public safety deputy’s recommendations aren’t routinely ignored?

+ What additional role is the community going to play in the accountability process? Another oversight panel proposed by the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force, the Community Safety Oversight Board, hasn’t been designed yet.

Getting that panel right is an important piece of the overall puzzle.

So let’s hope that before the final vote is taken the mayor’s office and the City Council answer the questions we’ve raised, and ask the ones we’ve missed, with open minds and a commitment to pass a police accountability ordinance that’s tough but fair.

The stakes are too high for anything less than everyone’s best.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: Follow @Andyshawbga

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