Sydney Roberts has no idea how long she will remain on the $161,856-a-year job as head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability or how much freedom she will have to maneuver.
Those parameters will be determined only after the City Council decides how much power to give a civilian police oversight board.
In spite of that uncertainty, Roberts is now the permanent replacement for COPA’s founding director Sharon Fairley, who resigned to run what turned out to be a failed campaign for Illinois attorney general.
The City Council on Wednesday approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointment of Roberts, director of the Illinois Secretary of State Police, to run the city agency charged with investigating police shootings and other allegations of excessive force and intimidation.
“If [Secretary of State] Jesse White says she’s alright, she’s okay with me,” said Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), referring to his political mentor.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, warned Roberts that the “entire city is counting on you to deliver transparency and accountability.”
Roberts said the unanimous vote was “quite moving” and she is anxious to get started.
“We have a lot to do. Building the community’s trust is one of our primary goals and that is gonna take some time. We also have to build trust with law enforcement. But, under our leadership, we will do that,” she said.
Some police reform advocates are not exactly thrilled about having someone whose background is deeply entrenched in Illinois law enforcement running COPA.
But Roberts tried again Wednesday to dispel those fears.
“We will be transparent in our investigative process, our results and we’ll be accessible,” she said.
“Chicago, its residents and law enforcement deserve a robust police oversight body. And it is our goal to make COPA the best police oversight committee.”
Roberts was asked how she can assure rank-and-file police officers that COPA investigations will give them a fair shake and still reassure a skeptical public that their complaints are taken seriously. Aren’t those divergent interests?
“Not necessarily divergent,” she said. “My goal is to be accessible and to talk to them and to hear their concerns. And also through issuing investigative findings that are based on the facts of the case in a fair and balanced manner.”
Having not read the facts, Roberts said she can’t comment on the ongoing conflict between Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and COPA over Johnson’s decision to conclude that Chicago Police Officer Robert Rialmo was “justified and within department policy” when he shot Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones.
COPA has recommended that Rialmo be fired.
Rialmo’s fate is now in the hands of a single, randomly-selected Police Board member after Johnson and COPA were unable to find middle ground.
Emanuel quickly embraced Roberts, the only candidate presented to him by his hand-picked selection committee, instead of allowing COPA to remain without permanent leadership while the City Council decides whether to empower a civilian police review panel to hire and fire the COPA chief.
After Wednesday’s vote, the mayor called Roberts’ confirmation a significant step in a long road toward police reform that is “done with officers – not to” them.
“If officers feel like these are people that don’t understand their days and experiences and are just [saying], `This is what’s gonna be,’ and they don’t have a voice in this process, reforms will not be taken. It’ll be harder,” the mayor said.
“If they feel like they have a seat at the table and they get heard, it doesn’t mean you win every point, then they have bought into that process.”
In the past, police officers and the complaining public were united in their belief that investigations of police wrongdoing languished. They had “different views” about “why it never came to a conclusion,” the mayor said.
“My hope and why I nominated Ms. Roberts [is to create] a sense of fairness that, even if you don’t like the decision, you think it’s been fair and you got heard,” the mayor said.