New COPA chief vows to earn public trust with fair investigation, outreach

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Newly-appointed COPA chief Sydney Roberts (left) talks to Paula Wolff (right), who co-chaired the selection committee that chose her, prior to her confirmation hearing earlier this month. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The newly appointed chief of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability vowed Friday to earn public trust by delivering fair and independent investigations of police wrongdoing and by reaching out to a skeptical community to explain those results.

Sydney Roberts, director of the Illinois Secretary of State Police, breezed through her City Council confirmation hearing as Public Safety Committee Chairman Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) disclosed plans to hold public hearings across the city on three competing proposals for civilian police oversight.

The outcome of that high-stakes showdown will determine how long Roberts remains on the $161,856-a-year job and how much freedom she has to maneuver. That’s because two of the pending proposals would empower a civilian oversight board to hire and fire the COPA chief.

On Friday, Roberts was asked whether she has a problem with that.

“I wouldn’t not support it,” she said.

Roberts refused to 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. The two sides are now attempting to find middle ground.

But when Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) argued that the Rialmo case had been “mishandled,” Roberts talked about how she might have handled it differently.

“On…cases of concern that are generating a lot of media attention, I would be as transparent and open as possible regarding the outcome and the release of that information,” she said.

The outreach theme was a common thread during Roberts’ testimony — even though she undermined it by refusing to answer reporters questions after the hearing.

Roberts had already called every one of the dozen aldermen in attendance. She even talked about the “very good conversation” she has had with Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham, an outspoken critic of COPA.

On Friday, Roberts emphasized her need to convince Chicagoans to trust the fairness of COPA’s investigations of police wrongdoing enough to file complaints.

“I need to sell the message and let the community know that I am accessible…When the community has questions, [I need to] to answer those questions…,” Roberts said.

The outreach promise was music to the ears of North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).

“You’re coming in at an extraordinary time in our city’s history…when there is a great deal of tension…,” said Osterman, co-sponsor of one of the civilian oversight proposals.

“Decisions you’re gonna make…affects the entire city.”

Roberts said she won’t hesitate to push the envelope — by recommending policy changes at the same time she investigates police wrongdoing.

The FOP wants to know why a Boston police lieutenant was paid more than $17,000 to review the LeGrier and Jones’ shooting, but COPA never referenced those findings in its ruling.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) and Anthony Napolitano (41st), whose Northwest Side wards are home to scores of Chicago Police officers, carried a grudge about, what they called “that secret investigation” into Friday’s hearing.

“If you’re paying money to bring an outsider in to investigate because your staff can’t do something and then, you don’t use it, that can only be for a wrong reason,” Sposato said.

Napolitano added, “My fear is that, when it’s not coming back the way COPA wants it, then it’s something that’s going to be omitted and not used. I’m not a fan of that — whether it’s for the officer or against the officer.”

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