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A good start, but only a start, in holding rogue cops accountable

Sharon Fairley, acting head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, will resign to run for Illinois attorney general. | Associated Press

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Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, announced a couple of good steps Wednesday toward putting the oversight agency’s days as an inept rubber stamp behind it.

But given the deep cynicism with which Chicagoans have come to regard IPRA, the agency has a long way to go. As Fairley herself points out, this is a civilian agency that has virtually never found fault with cops involved in shootings. Of the hundreds of cases IPRA investigated after it was formed in 2007, it rules in only two cases that a police officer violated the Police Department’s use-of-force policy. In fact, it took IPRA eight years to recommend for the first time the firing of an officer involved in a shooting, even as the city paid out millions of dollars in civil suits.

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No wonder Chicagoans have no confidence in IPRA’s ability, or even willingness, to get to the bottom of police misconduct. And that mistrust has deep historic roots. It’s worth remembering that IPRA itself was created to replace the Chicago Police Department’s old Office of Professional Standards because the public had stopped believing OPS did credible investigations of police misconduct. But as time went by, IPRA came to be seen as notoriously inept as well.

To help rebuild trust, Fairley — a former federal prosecutor appointed in December to replace Scott Ando — said IPRA has commissioned a historical review by an outside law firm of IPRA’s work in past cases. The review will examine the quality of IPRA investigations and the accuracy of its findings. Fairley also introduced a new leadership team and revealed updated procedures on police-involved shootings, staff performance evaluations, quality control measures and a community outreach plan.

IRPA’s facelift comes at a critical time for the Chicago Police Department, which has been without a superintendent since former Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was fired late last year. Relations between Chicago police and citizens have frayed after a streak of police-involved shootings, including the shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. Video showed that McDonald, a 17-year-old, was shot 16 times by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who faces murder charges. Chicagoans expressed their dismay and disgust over that and other shootings by police through mostly peaceful protests, and they’re still waiting for answers they can have confidence it.

Fortunately, Fairley seems to understand that only a well-respected IPRA can keep the public from completely losing confidence in the ability of the city’s police force to act respectfully and competently.

That’s where the review of past cases can help. Not every case will be re-examined, but if the law firm undertaking the effort, McGuireWoods LLP, does a thorough job, citizens should gain a far better understanding of how well — or poorly — IPRA has been doing its job. Fairley’s willingness to air IPRA’s failings indicate she’s confident the agency will do a better job in the future.

Even before work begins on the review of past cases, we already know some of IPRA’s failings.

In the McDonald case, an FBI agent criticized IPRA for not giving authorities an early warning about the case.

IPRA also looked bad in police brutality trial of Chicago Police Cmdr. Glenn Evans, who was acquitted of brutality charges. An investigator admitted he didn’t follow through on vital requests from a supervisor and the Illinois State Police crime lab. No one from IPRA carried out interviews with police officers crucial to the case, including Evans.

IPRA’s job now is to prove it can conduct investigations with professionalism and fewer of the kind of slip-ups that belong in an old Keystone Cops movie.

Across the country, the topic of police accountability has been at the forefront in recent months. Chicagoans need to have their faith restored in the Chicago Police Department and the agency that acts as its watchdog. Police officers need to know that, once again, the public trusts they are doing their difficult jobs professionally.

Too much time has been wasted. IPRA needs to get it right this time.

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