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Editorial: Big questions remain about new police review board

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Follow @csteditorialsLet’s hope Chicago’s latest police reform doesn’t leave us, once again, feeling blue.

Everyone’s hopes were high nine years ago, when the Chicago Police Department’s rightly excoriated Office of Professional Standards — charged with investigating alleged police misconduct — was replaced by the new and promising Independent Police Review Authority.

Finally, critics thought, investigations into excessive force by police would be conducted outside the Police Department, by civilians who were free of insider politics and stonewalling.

So how did that work out?

Even with subpoena power and an outside director, IPRA proved to be a rubber stamp. It investigated hundreds of cases and almost never found that a police officer had violated the Police Department’s use-of-force policy. Even as the city was paying millions of dollars in civil suits, IPRA chugged along for its first eight years without recommending the firing of a single officer involved in a shooting. Police officers accused of abusing citizens rarely were disciplined.

EDITORIAL

Follow @csteditorialsNow, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking another shot at reform, and a lot is riding on its success, given the abysmal state of relations between the police and many Chicagoans, especially minorities.

On Tuesday evening, Emanuel released the draft of an ordinance to create a new watchdog agency, the Civilian Office on Police Accountability, to replace IPRA. On paper, the proposed new agency, COPA for short, looks promising enough, especially when coupled with the creation of new deputy inspector general position to handle public safety issues. The new deputy IG would, among other tasks, monitor whether COPA is fending off outside pressures and doing its job.

But major questions remain as to how the head of COPA would be chosen and whether the agency would be funded in a way that minimizes political pressures. Also at issue is whether COPA would be allowed to choose its own legal counsel, and how a “Community Oversight Board” to ensure community input into all these decisions would be structured. The draft ordinance Emanuel released Friday leaves that last issue entirely for another day.

The mayor pushed back to Sept. 29 a scheduled City Council vote on the draft ordinance, adding an extra two weeks for public debate. But given the importance of getting this just right, even that may not be time enough.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), leader of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, told us he is generally pleased with the draft ordinance. He noted that the new agency, COPA, would investigate the use of Tasers as well as police shootings. And the city’s police superintendent would be allowed just 60 days to respond to recommendations for firings or suspension of police officers, with a possible 30-day extension. Currently, there is no deadline to respond, and such recommendations tend to gather dust.

But Waguespack and other aldermen point out that there’s a serious conflict-of-interest built into the system if COPA cannot appoint its own independent lawyer, which appears to be the case, and must rely instead on counsel selected with input from the city’s Law Department. The problem here is that the Law Department is responsible for defending the city and Police Department against lawsuits filed against police officers by citizens. It would be an obvious conflict, then, for the Law Department to also have a say in the workings of the agency, COPA, that investigates possible misconduct by officers. To create a real firewall, COPA should be allowed to choose its own counsel.

Also begging for a good public debate is whether COPA should be funded by a guaranteed percentage of the city budget, rather than by some amount determined by the City Council, to shield it against possible political payback. As we have seen from the experience of Chicago and other big cities in creating the position of inspector general, the more financially independent a watchdog agency is, the bolder and more effective it is sure to be.

And then there is the uncomfortably vague manner in which the chief administrator of COPA is to be chosen. Initially and temporarily, the chief administrator would be Sharon R. Fairley, who now heads the agency that is to be replaced, IPRA. As a practical matter, that makes a lot of sense. In the nine months she has headed IPRA, Fairley has done a commendable job of making it a more aggressive and effective police watchdog.

But how would COPA’s permanent boss be chosen? Who knows? The draft ordinance says only that the Community Oversight Board “will play a role.” And, as we have noted, nobody has figured out how that board will be structured or chosen.

Chicagoans long ago lost confidence in investigations into alleged police misbehavior. The department has yet to shake the memory of former Cmdr. Jon Burge and his detectives torturing suspects or the videotaped beating of a female bartender by Officer Anthony Abbate. The shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014 only further frayed relations between police and citizens. The mistrust eats away at the city’s efforts to build stronger ties between police and the communities they serve.

So IPRA must go, clearly, even if Fairley has breathed life into it, and a brand-new police accountability agency, structured to be free of outside pressures, should take its place.

That would be COPA, or so we hope, with an able assist from a new and vigilant deputy inspector general.

But Mayor Emanuel’s not there yet. This ordinance has holes.

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