Aldermen endorse IPRA chief as permanent head of COPA

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IPRA and soon-to-be COPA chief Sharon Fairley (left) talks to Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) after Tuesday’s budget hearing at City Hall. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Independent Police Review Authority chief Sharon Fairley maintained Tuesday that she’s not angling for the permanent job of running Chicago’s new Civilian Office of Police Accountability — not even after a handful of aldermen suggested just that.

“You deserve to stay there,” Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, told Fairley during a budget hearing.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) is a former police officer-turned-firefighter whose Northwest Side ward is home to scores of police officers who believe COPA will be stacked against them.

But even he told Fairley, “I have a lot of confidence in you. You’re doing a great job.”

Fairley will preside over the transition from IPRA to COPA that’s expected to take until mid-year at the earliest. She also will serve as COPA’s temporary chief because Mayor Rahm Emanuel has postponed indefinitely the appointment of a civilian oversight board that will choose the new permanent COPA chief.

Asked Tuesday if she would like to make that arrangement permanent, Fairley said, “This transition is so big and so important, that’s all I can focus on right now. We have so much work that’s going on to get this agency off to a right start, I want to get that done. Then you can ask me that question,” she said.

But Fairley stressed that she appreciates the aldermanic attaboys.

“It’s always nice to get positive feedback. . . . And I really appreciate how much time and energy that they’ve put into the lead-up to this ordinance and the ordinance that was created. To me, it was the democratic process at work. And it was quite a privilege for me to see how it played out,” she said.

Fairley has good reason to be pleased. She got pretty much everything she wanted, including a guaranteed budget and the power to hire independent counsel.

Advocates have complained that the $8.4 million IPRA budget virtually guarantees that investigations of police wrongdoing will drag on for months or even years.

With a new floor of 1 percent of the Chicago Police Department budget, not including grant funds, COPA’s budget will now be “closer to $17 million,” Fairley said.

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

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), another former police officer, said his only concern is that 75 investigators and 15 supervisors may not be enough for COPA, given the increased caseload. IPRA investigators will be allowed to apply for those jobs. Fairley said she anticipates hiring many of them.

Fairley also talked about the “information technology infrastructure” she’s putting in place that’s no longer “owned and operated by the Chicago Police Department,” and about the six employees who will be focused exclusively on the “quality and timeliness” of investigations of police wrongdoing.

“They will be alerting management when there are cases that need attention because they’ve been lagging. They will be doing audits of case files to make sure that they’re complete and they’re accurate. They will be helping us drive quality into the process,” Fairley said.

With IPRA now down to a bare-bones 44 investigators, Fairley acknowledged that 59 cases are more than 2 years old. She’s asking for “outside resources” before the transition from IPRA to COPA that’s expected to be completed by the start of the third quarter of 2017.

“I don’t want the new agency to be saddled with the backlog,” she said.

To counter fears that the agency will not live up to the name, “Civilian Office of Police Accountability,” Fairley is putting together a “community advisory board.” Only this time, it’ll be made up of independent activists, not the usual suspects.

“It includes community activists, such as Will Calloway. We have membership from affected families, [including] Mr. Farmer, whose son was the subject of an officer-involved shooting. We have some activists who are in the legal community,” Fairley said.

“For me it’s like, what’s the point if we’re gonna have a bunch of yes men,” she said. “That’s not the point of it for me. The point is to get really good and helpful feedback and advice.”

The names of independent activists instead of the usual suspects were music to the ears of Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who voted against Emanuel’s plan because it wasn’t independent enough.

“This is kind of where the rubber meets the road. If you’ve done all this hard work and we’ve put all these things in place and then, you get Moe, Larry and Curly who are always there — if that’s all you get — then it undoes all of the credibility and all the hard work that has gone into trying to create something . . . and that would be very unfortunate,” Hairston said.

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