Chicago’s new Civilian Office of Police Accountability will not be “starved for resources,” a top mayoral aide declared Tuesday, though he refused to be pinned down to a specific dollar amount or budget percentage.
Corporation Counsel Steve Patton also assured aldermen that the agency that replaces the Independent Police Review Authority will have authority to hire its own independent counsel.
Patton said specific language of the compromise has yet to be finalized. That’s why the City Council Committees on Budget and Public Safety took no vote on the mayor’s police accountability ordinance at Tuesday’s joint meeting.
But Patton said the final language may well involve creating a “pool” of law firms with expertise conducting police investigations that are “pre-qualified” to “meet our standards.” That way, a Law Department charged with defending police officers and negotiating the police contract can keep hands off.
The corporation counsel was less definitive about the unyielding demand that COPA have a guaranteed budget to avoid going hat-in-hand to the mayor and City Council.
“It’s important that there be an assurance that this new agency is not starved for resources — that there is some floor there to ensure that this critical function is not underfunded. There is a broad recognition that that is an element that needs to be addressed,” Patton said.
“Not necessarily trying to pre-set what the budget would be because that may vary based on need,” he said. “But ensuring that there is some minimum funding guarantee and some vehicle to ensure that.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, was not satisfied with Patton’s answer. Not when COPA will inherit an expanded annual caseload that, under the mayor’s proposed ordinance, would include false arrests, illegal searches, denials of counsel and other constitutional complaints.
“I hate to kind of beat on a dead horse. But I’m trying to make sure that there is going to be sufficient funding for this new entity,” Sawyer said.
“Have there been numbers in your head? I’m not trying to commit you to a number. We really are trying to understand what kind of number we’re talking about,” he said. “Maybe you can talk about how they’re currently staffed, and are we talking about a substantial increase from that?”
Still, Patton refused to be pinned down.
“Even if I felt so inclined and free to do so, I don’t think folks have that number yet. We’re looking at a new entity with increased responsibility and higher expectations. There’s a very robust process that I’m not a part of figuring out, who do you need, what new positions, what responsibilities and how much money is that gonna cost,” Patton said.
“On the guarantee, the assurance, the floor to ensure that this new entity is not starved for resources, I’m again gonna decline on a number. But I would not be surprised if where that ends up is being a percentage of some benchmark.”
Police Board President Lori Lightfoot reminded aldermen that the Task Force on Police Accountability she co-chaired recommended that COPA be guaranteed at least 1 percent of the Chicago Police Department’s budget.
If the agency that replaces IPRA is going to be “truly independent” of the Police Department, Lightfoot said, “It needs its own evidence technicians and collection efforts. . . . That’s not going to be cheap. That is going to require additional funding” to maintain the “chain of custody.”
Earlier this year, that task force — appointed by the mayor on the day Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was fired — released a blistering 190-page report that characterized IPRA as so “badly broken” it needed to be abolished.
The report also took aim at a police contract that makes it “easy for officers to lie” by giving them 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting and includes “impediments to accountability” by prohibiting anonymous complaints, allowing officers to change statements after reviewing video and requiring that complaint records to be destroyed.
On Tuesday, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) tried to pin Patton down on what changes Emanuel plans to seek in the new police contract.
Waguespack noted that the U.S. Justice Department is likely to mandate contract changes as part of the sweeping civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department triggered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
Once again, Patton refused to be specific.
He would say only, “There is a recognition — no question about it — that there are a number of provisions in the current [contract] that are problematic. There’s a commitment to addressing most, if not all of those, through the [negotiation] process. But that’s a process. It’s a process of agreement — not dictation and unilateral imposition.”
Fraternal Order of Police attorney Brian Hlavin underscored that point hours later with a laundry list of complaints about the mayor’s ordinance. Chief among them were the similarities between COPA and IPRA.
“Even the ordinance states that the same people that are operating IPRA are gonna be operating COPA. We sent a letter to the mayor very clearly expressing our concerns over the leadership at IPRA and our belief that the administrator Ms. Fairley is not fair, impartial or independent in her judgment,” the FOP attorney said.
Hlavin also issued a warning about the bargaining process.
“Issues like discipline of police officers are a mandatory subject of bargaining. And that’s something that the city, under state law, has an obligation to negotiate with the union. We fully expect the city to comply with its obligations to bargain in good faith,” Hlavin said.
Civil rights attorney Flint Taylor, who has defended scores of victims allegedly tortured by convicted former Area 2 Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, said he “got a little bit nervous” hearing Patton describe the give-and-take of the negotiating process.
“We’ve had history here in this city about the reactionary and racist nature of the police union and how powerful they are and how secretive it is when that contract is negotiated. If there isn’t sunlight into that negotiation with the community, which there never has been, then we have some real problems with the contract,” Taylor said.
Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo could not be reached for comment on Taylor’s remarks.
Taylor noted that Emanuel has put off for months the appointment of a civilian oversight board responsible for selecting a permanent COPA chief.
If the mayor insists on controlling a majority of appointments to that board and refuses to make the fundamental changes that activists demand, Taylor warned, “we’re gonna be right back where we were in 2007, right back where we were in 1974, right back where we were in 1989. All times when these issues came up and there were changes made by mayors, but those changes never amounted to much . . . because there wasn’t the commitment to let the community have real control over their police.”
Lightfoot agreed that the civilian oversight board “can’t be imposed from the top down.”