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Mayor’s plan to abolish IPRA raises questions, few answers

Sharon Fairley (right) was approved as the new head of IPRA in January. | Sun-Times file photo

Top mayoral aides are holding closed-door briefings with small groups of aldermen this week to flesh out details of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to abolish the Independent Police Review Authority, but the sessions are raising more questions than they answer.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago Police officer-turned-firefighter, said he’s concerned about the multiple levels of oversight the mayor is planning over already wary police officers and about the criteria that would be used to serve on those boards.

“I get that we need some sort of change. But the thing that I’m worried in the end is, when you bring an independent group of people in who don’t understand the law or have no law or policing background, you’re pretty much sending ’em out there to go on kind of a witch hunt for police officers,” Napolitano said.

Napolitano said he was assured by top mayoral aides Anna Valencia and Janey Rountree that “nothing is set in stone,” but Emanuel hopes to create three independent boards to restore public confidence in investigations of excessive force and other police wrongdoing.

“Take those three, add to ’em your department. Add to ’em your IAD. Add to ’em your media. Add to ’em your ACLU. That right there is eight different levels of the onion that every officer is gonna be scrutinized on. What we’re creating is a reactive police department,” Napolitano said.

“When I talk to officers, they’re saying, `We feel like the whole city is coming down on us,’ ” he said. “Fourteen hundred people shot this year alone. How many of ’em shot by police officers? Six. The numbers don’t equal properly. It’s not an officer issue.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said he came away from his briefing confused.

“I don’t know where they’re going with this. . . . I know they want to move on this. But I’m guessing that this will be several meetings over the course of the summer to get where they want to go,” O’Shea said.

South Side Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) said top mayoral aides “presented what the framework was gonna be like” and that sparked even more questions.

“How would these people be chosen? What would be their activities? What would be the recourse? There’s just so many additional questions,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell wondered aloud whether “any old citizen” could be involved in the oversight boards or whether specific qualifications would be required.

“Is it gonna be elected? Is it gonna be appointed? Will it be a hybrid approach? The things that we got back from the people presenting was that’s all on the table. So we have to come with our set of criteria and then mesh everything together. That’s what I’m getting,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he can only hope the Emanuel administration isn’t “flying by the seat of their pants” to solve a political problem.

“We need to put something together that can be seen as credible by the public,” he said.

“Questions came up. Does the staff from IPRA transfer over to certain roles? That might be deemed as not credible. . . . We can’t let cases sit for 11, 12, 13 years. Not credible. It makes us look weak.”

The mayor said Tuesday there’s plenty of time to flesh out the framework and respond to the questions aldermen have about how the new, multi-layered system of police accountability will work.

“Unlike when IPRA was created in 2007 and unlike when the Police Board was created in 1963, we’re gonna deal with accountability and oversight in a comprehensive way and I want an iterative process with the aldermen. We will do that and elicit their ideas before we present that comprehensive plan,” Emanuel said at an unrelated appearance at a West Side park.

“This is the process that you go through. . . . If I sit there and lay out a plan before I talk to them, then it’s gonna be, `You don’t listen to us.’ If you listen to ’em, then you go, `It’s vague.’ So, you know what? Heads, I win. Tails, you lose. That’s how it is. But the good news is, we’re talking to them.”

Two weeks ago, Emanuel did an abrupt about-face in a desperate attempt to restore public confidence shaken by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

After saying he wanted to wait for direction from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department, Emanuel forged ahead and embraced the most controversial and far-reaching changes proposed by his hand-picked Task Force on Police Accountability.

He said he would replace IPRA with a more independent civilian agency, appoint a public safety inspector general to monitor the police department, and create a Community Safety Oversight Board to monitor all police-related operations.

But the logistics of that broad-strokes plan were left blank. The mayor has promised to introduce a more detailed proposal at the City Council meeting on June 22 even though Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jason Ervin (28th) have their own pending proposals.

But if the aldermen interviewed Tuesday are any indication, the mayor has his work cut out for him to forge a consensus on the volatile issue.

IPRA was created less than a decade ago by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in the wake of scandals that included systemic torture of crime suspects by detectives working under Cmdr. Jon Burge and the videotaped drunken beating of a female bartender by Officer Anthony Abbate.

The agency had investigated more than 400 police shootings by late last year and ruled all but two of those shootings justified. In both cases, the shooters were off-duty police officers.