Ten days after a ballyhooed kick-off, the chief administrator of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability has told Mayor Rahm Emanuel she is planning to resign to run for Illinois attorney general, City Hall sources said Monday.
Sharon Fairley’s departure would be a stunning blow for a newly-created agency struggling to regain public trust shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and prove that it is more than just a name change from the widely-discredited and now-abolished Independent Police Review Authority.
With a bigger budget and broader powers certain to create an expanded caseload, COPA opened for business on Sept. 15 with 25 vacancies out of 141 authorized full-time employees, 90 of them investigators.
One of the vacancies is the first deputy and chief of investigations. Thomas Kim, former chief of investigations for New York City’s police oversight agency, abruptly resigned after just a few months on the job.
If Fairley follows Kim out the door, COPA would have two vacancies at the top. A former federal prosecutor, Fairley could not be reached for comment.
“She is seriously considering” resigning to run for attorney general, COPA spokesperson Mia Sissac disclosed Monday immediately after a brief phone conversation with Fairley precipitated by a Chicago Sun-Times inquiry.
If Fairley announces a run, she would be the fourth person on the race, joining two Democrats — state Rep. Scott Drury and state Sen. Kwame Raoul — and Republican Erika Harold.
Sissac was shaken by Fairley’s admission that she was considering leaving, but recouped enough to insist her departure would do nothing to stop the momentum of an agency that the Fraternal Order of Police has refused to recognize.
“The agency has been built and designed so that it can be successful, no matter who is the chief administrator,” Sissac said.
“Sharon is a phenomenal leader and her vision has been realized. Her goal was to get it up and [running.] She’s done that. The staff is of high-quality. … The agency now has the resources to do what it needs to do.”
Sources said Fairley has already discussed her plans to resign with Emanuel. City Hall sources described her departure as imminent. She had been expected to compete for the permanent job.
“This is about an agency and the procedures that they have in place and the work that’s being done at the agency — not necessarily about individuals,” said Karen Sheley, director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Last month, retiring Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against the city seeking federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department.
After months of resistance, Emanuel was finally on board and vowed to negotiate with Madigan to finalize a consent decree with rigid timetables and financial commitments toward police reform.
On Monday, Sheley argued that, likewise, the success or failure of COPA ultimately depends on Emanuel.
“Reform is difficult no matter what. It’s not about individuals. It’s about a commitment by the city and by its agencies to make real changes. If those changes are in the hands of someone else, that means that we’ll be watching to see how the job is done no matter who’s in the chair,” she said.
Police Board President Lori Lightfoot co-chaired the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability that laid the groundwork for a similarly critical report by the U.S. Justice Department after a year-long investigation triggered by the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Lightfoot said she, too, was “very surprised to hear the news” about Fairley’s “potential departure” as COPA chief.
“COPA plays a critically important role in the police accountability infrastructure in the city and, it’s going to be critically important that, if she does leave, a credible interim administrator be appointed as quickly as possible,” Lightfoot said.
“We need to keep making progress in making sure investigations are done thoroughly and expeditiously. That work cannot be sidetracked.”
FOP spokesman Martin Preib issued a statement that appeared to welcome Fairley’s exit.
“Our members deserve fair investigations based upon the rules of evidence. Now is a prime opportunity for the mayor to appoint someone who will conduct them,” Preib wrote in an email.
On the day that Madigan stunned the political world by announcing that a fourth term would be her last, Fairley presided over a ceremonial swearing-in for COPA investigators at the South Shore Cultural Center.
She told reporters the agency had been rebuilt “from scratch.” She acknowledged that she faces an uphill battle to rebuilt public trust and convince Chicagoans that police officers who use excessive force or otherwise abuse the citizens they are sworn to protect will be held accountable.
“We heard loud and clear that this couldn’t be a mere name change,” Fairley was quoted as saying. “This is a new agency, from top to bottom.”
Fairley was serving as COPA’s temporary chief because Emanuel has postponed indefinitely the appointment of a civilian oversight board that will choose the new permanent COPA chief.