After changes, Emanuel’s COPA ordinance expected to sail through

SHARE After changes, Emanuel’s COPA ordinance expected to sail through
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has crafted a compromise to address the three biggest complaints about his Civilian Office of Police Accountability: a guaranteed budget; authority to hire independent counsel; and a ban on former police officers serving as investigators.

The changes set the stage for the City Council’s Budget and Public Safety Committees to approve the mayor’s painstakingly negotiated ordinance on Tuesday and for the full City Council to give the final signoff on Wednesday.

The agency known as COPA, which will replace the soon-to-be-abolished and discredited Independent Police Review Authority, will have a guaranteed budget of 1 percent of the Chicago Police Department’s budget, not including grant funding.

That’s roughly $14 million, $2.1 million more than an IPRA budget the police reform advocates have called so totally inadequate that 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 that, under the mayor’s ordinance, will include false arrests, illegal searches, denials of counsel and other constitutional complaints.

Also in line for a guaranteed budget is the new 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 accountability system.

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 1 percent of the overall city budget he already receives, Ferguson’s budget would be increased to .14 percent, roughly $8.4 million. That’s up $2.4 million from the inspector general’s current budget.

As promised by Corporation Counsel Steve Patton, COPA would have authority to “retain counsel to enforce and defend against subpoenas and to advise and represent the office with respect to its investigations.”

“Such counsel are selected from a pool of no fewer than five firms previously approved by the corporation counsel after consultation with” COPA, the amendment states.

“Such counsel are retained pursuant to the standard terms of engagement then used by the corporation counsel, including any limitations on fees or costs. The costs . . . are paid from the appropriation of the office. And the office provides the corporation counsel with notice of the engagement, including the firm selected and a copy of the engagement agreement.”

Emanuel has postponed indefinitely plans to create a civilian review board that will choose a permanent COPA chief.

That will allow IPRA administrator Sharon Fairley to hold down the fort in the interim.

Fairley has argued behind-the-scenes for freedom to hire former police officers as investigators to avoid tying her hands.

Nevertheless, the final version states that, “No investigator employed by the office shall be a current or former sworn member of the Police Department within the last five years.”

The change is aimed at satisfying police reform advocates, who fear that police officers would be biased in favor of their former colleagues and continue a code of silence that Emanuel has acknowledged exists in the Chicago Police Department.

With those changes, the mayor’s ordinance is expected to sail through. That will at least begin the process of restoring public trust shattered by Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

“While no ordinance is perfect and this one does not embody every idea offered for consideration, the mayor, his team and the City Council members who were actively involved in the drafting process along with all of the community stakeholders who had a seat at the drafting table should be commended for their hard work,” Police Board President Lori Lightfoot wrote in a letter to the editor to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The level of widespread engagement and transparency is a model that can and should be followed in the future. Our city is truly the better for it. . . . There is, of course, more work to be done. [But] passage of this ordinance is a necessary and important building block for the path forward.”

Lightfoot’s unequivocal support is pivotal and somewhat surprising.

She co-chaired the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability that characterized IPRA as so “badly broken” it needed to be disbanded, forcing Emanuel’s hand. She also led a group of civic leaders demanding meaningful public input before a new system of police accountability is put in place to restore public trust.

She condemned the first round of City Council hearings on the mayor’s plan as a “sham” because they were held in the middle of the workday after a long holiday weekend.

Lightfoot also led the nationwide search for a new police superintendent, only to have Emanuel reject all three nominees and anoint Eddie Johnson, who hadn’t applied for the job.

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