Under fire, COPA chief apologizes to Ella French’s family but says agency had ‘no procedure’ to alter report recommending slain officer’s suspension
Thursday’s mea culpa came after 20 alderpersons signed a letter to Mayor Lightfoot saying they want Andrea Kersten disqualified as she seeks approval to become the permanent head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
Heeding Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s call, the interim chief of Chicago’s police watchdog agency extended a “sincere and heartfelt apology” Thursday to Ella French’s loved ones but said “there was no procedure” to change the report that recommended a suspension for the slain Chicago police officer.
“There is truly no greater act of service than laying down one’s life for the City they serve as Officer French did. She is to be honored and remembered as a hero,” Andrea Kersten, the acting head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said during a meeting of the Chicago Police Board.
“I have profound regret and sadness that the work of our agency has in any way hurt the French family,” Kersten added, “and those who mourn her and I will work steadfastly to ensure that a situation such as this never happens again.”
Kersten’s comments came a day after Lightfoot demanded an apology for including French in a report COPA published last week on the botched raid of social worker Anjanette Young’s home in 2019. The report accused French of failing to activate her body-worn camera when she showed up at the home and recommended a three-day suspension.
Lightfoot has called the report the “height of tone-deafness” but nevertheless anointed Kersten COPA’s permanent chief on Tuesday. That same day, 20 alderpersons signed a letter to the mayor saying they want her handpicked choice disqualified for the job amid the mounting controversy.
Then on Wednesday, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), one of the mayor’s staunchest critics, used a parliamentary maneuver to try to derail the appointment. Lightfoot later said that Kersten “understands she’s got to explain herself” and “apologize to the family.”
While Kersten began her prepared comments Thursday by effusively apologizing to French’s family, she insisted that “COPA did not and never would make a posthumous discipline recommendation for any officer.” Still, she noted the agency had an obligation to publish the report “when and how we did.”
Kersten added that COPA’s recommendations were sent to the Chicago Police Department on April 27, over three months before French was killed and Officer Caros Yanez Jr. was wounded in a shooting during a traffic stop in West Englewood. She said Chicago Police Supt. David Brown agreed with all COPA’s findings and recommendations on July 26, though the process of notifying the other officers involved in the incident about their disciplinary charges wasn't completed until Nov. 9.
Once that process was complete, Kersten added, the agency “had an obligation to the timely and transparent release of our report,” which was published the following day.
“When we release reports to the public, COPA does not alter a report or redact more information than the law permits,” Kersten said. “The report that COPA publishes is the final version submitted to the [police] department in support of our findings. Despite the overwhelming tragedy of Officer French’s murder, there was no procedure by which to change our report or recommendations and no request made to do so.”
Kersten ultimately acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding the report “have clearly indicated the need for further discussion and clarification around how our city wants transparency to function.
“I would welcome a conversation to examine a process for ensuring that a situation like this never happens again.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman