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Police reform advocates want to stop apparent Lightfoot nominee for top COPA job

Lori Lypson is chief operating officer of Chicago’s Public Building Commission. Her only experience investigating police wrongdoing was nearly 20 years ago, in CPD’s Office of Professional Standards — run by Lori Lightfoot at the time.

Chicago City Hall
Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office says no final decision has been made on someone to take over the top job at the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, reform advocates think they know who’s going to get the job — and they’re not happy about it.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Police reform advocates are mobilizing behind the scenes to stop Mayor Lori Lightfoot from appointing the chief operating officer of the Public Building Commission to run Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

Lori Lypson’s only experience in investigating police wrongdoing was more than 20 years ago when she spent a year as supervising investigator for the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

The chief administrator of OPS at that time? Lori Lightfoot.

Lightfoot and Lypson teamed up again in May 2005 at the city’s Department of Procurement Services.

At the time, Lightfoot and longtime friend Mary Dempsey were sent into Procurement Services by Mayor Richard M. Daley to clean up the mess after the Hired Truck and minority contracting scandals.

Lypson could not be reached for comment.

Walter Katz served as deputy mayor for public safety under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with oversight responsibility over COPA. Katz said he doesn’t know Lypson personally. But considering Lypson was “at OPS for a year, a long time ago,” he understands why reform advocates oppose the appointment.

“The work of having civilian oversight investigating police misconduct is extraordinarily difficult and having experience in that work is important,” Katz said Wednesday.

“Chicago has suffered through two traumatic, high-profile, officer-involved shootings, which are under investigation. It is very important for trust and legitimacy that those investigations proceed as objective and independent. So the leadership at COPA has to be able to reflect that objectivity and independence.”

“It’s a head-scratcher to me,” Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, said of Lypson’s ppossible appointment.

Futterman compared it with the appointment of retired Cook County Judge Patricia Banks as interim head of COPA under Emanuel. Banks was “smart and competent” but “lacked the experience to run an investigative agency like COPA.” The agency was “rudderless” under Banks and there was a mass exodus of staffers.

“Bringing in someone who is not either an expert in investigating police misconduct or managing these investigations, which are complicated and politically fraught, you are basically dooming the agency to failure,” Futterman said.

The mayor’s office denied a final decision has been made on what is expected to be a year-long appointment that would not require City Council approval.

Lypson would replace Sydney Roberts, forced out last week after Lightfoot publicly and repeatedly criticized the slow pace of COPA investigations.

“From the outset, there was this big backlog of cases which was inherited from IPRA. They have hundreds of [additional] cases they need to investigate. There is a question about whether or not they have sufficient staffing for that. Considering those types of challenges, Sydney did a good job. It’s an extraordinarily hard job,” Katz told the Sun-Times.

Lypson’s appointment is expected to go over like a lead balloon with COPA staffers. They favor COPA’s chief investigator Andrea Kersten to replace Roberts and assumed she would at least be the interim replacement.

If Kersten is passed over, she may well decide to leave the agency during COPA’s investigations of the police shootings of 13-year-old Adam Toledo and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez.

That would create what one source called a “double-whammy” at COPA at the worst possible time, not unlike the recent announcement that the three top executives at the Chicago Public Schools are departing.

A source with a finger on the pulse at COPA noted Kersten, chief of investigative operations, “did a lot of the heavy lifting” over the past four years and is respected by the rank and file in COPA, who assumed she would be named interim chief administrator.

Kersten, a former prosecutor, started at COPA as a supervisor in the legal department and worked her way up. She developed the protocols COPA uses to investigate domestic violence allegations against cops.

“She’s always been the person behind the person at COPA. She brought a professional culture that was strongly adopted by the supervisors,” the source said.

Further complicating the transition is a Chicago Sun-Times report this week that the way the city investigates fatal shootings by police officers violates state law and that Lightfoot has been sitting on recommendations to fix the problem for nearly a year.

Lightfoot has been openly critical of COPA and how long it has taken for investigations to be completed under Roberts’ leadership.

The mayor was particularly outspoken about COPA’s protracted, more-than-18-month investigation into the botched raid on a wrong home that forced a crying and pleading Anjanette Young to stand naked before Chicago police officers.

Roberts’ resignation gives Lightfoot an opportunity to choose her own COPA chief — before a civilian police review board is seated and empowered to make the selection. But it also marks yet another turn of the revolving door at Lightfoot’s City Hall.

Lightfoot has denied demanding Roberts’ resignation. But she has also “made no secret of the fact” that she has been “extraordinarily unhappy with the way that they’ve handled a number of things.”

“COPA needs to be much more responsive. Much more mindful about the fact that it carries a very important position and role in police accountability. We’ve got to make sure that they move forward in a thorough, but expeditious way because, as everyone knows, justice delayed is justice denied,” the mayor said on the day Roberts resigned.