New COPA chief in ‘for the long haul,’ aims for trust of residents, police

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Newly-appointed Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) chief administrator Sydney Roberts sits down for a conversation with the Chicago Sun-Times in her office at COPA headquarters, 1615 W. Chicago Ave., Thursday morning, May 10, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For Sydney Roberts, the new chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the idea of building trust is at the bedrock of her plans for the agency.

That trust, she says, needs to be formed with communities heavily impacted by police misconduct, but also with law enforcement officers themselves.

“We need their trust. We need their confidence,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview Thursday. “I want that officer calling our office and filing a complaint. And the only way we can get that officer to call our office and file a complaint — or participate meaningfully in the investigative process — is if they trust that that officer will get a fair shake.”

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A New Jersey native, Roberts believes her background — she’s worked at the Maywood Police Department, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Secretary of State’s Office — makes her the ideal person to lead the agency. She was named the full-time chief administrator less than two weeks ago, months after Sharon Fairley resigned to run for Illinois Attorney General.

In her brief time at the helm so far, she says she has been struck most by the level of commitment from her staff, made up of about 140 people.

“They are passionate about doing better,” she said. “They are passionate about getting this right.”

Roberts said there were no aspects of Fairley’s strategy that she planned to immediately scrap, but said several times that COPA can do “better.”

“‘Better’ means doing an integrity-based investigation,” she said. “Following the facts where they lead. Addressing inconsistencies. Doing a thorough investigation. ‘Doing better’ is about doing a timely investigation. ‘Doing better’ is about being transparent about our investigative methodologies.”

COPA has come under intense scrutiny in recent months for its investigation into the fatal shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones by Officer Robert Rialmo in 2015.

The Fraternal Order of Police has questioned the agency’s methods and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson rebuked COPA’s findings and recommendation that Rialmo should be fired.

“COPA has the responsibility of investigating split-second decisions that were made under very tense, stressful and sometimes fearful conditions,” Roberts said. “In doing that, it is possible for two people to look at that same evidence and see things differently. That’s what I believe has happened here.”

Roberts said she’s spoken with Johnson once since starting the job and it was “very positive,” though both realize there will be disagreements.

“We recognize that there may be times — case in point the Rialmo case — where we see things differently,” she said. “It doesn’t make us bad people, we just see things differently.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) has proposed scrapping COPA and the Chicago Police Board and instituting an elected 22-member council that would be tasked with police oversight and meting out discipline.

“It’s not a fight that I have to get in to right now,” Roberts said. “That follows the elective process, the democratic process. However that pans out is how it pans out.”

As part of COPA’s community engagement efforts, the agency will have representatives meet with residents at libraries in Austin, South Shore and South Chicago. They’ll answer questions about COPA and citizens can file complaints there, too.

“I’m in this for the long haul,” Roberts said. “The city has to be in this for the long haul. The police department has to be in this for the long haul. This did not happen overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight.”

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