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Police oversight agency chief resigns

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been openly critical of how long the Civilian Office of Police Accountability has taken to finish investigations, including a protracted investigation into the botched raid on the home of a social worker.

Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, is resigning from that job.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Under fire for the slow pace of investigations, the head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability announced Wednesday she is resigning after three years in that job.

Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of COPA, was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2018. She becomes the second high-ranking administration official to resign this week as Mayor Lori Lightfoot nears the midpoint of her term.

“It has been a tremendous honor to serve these last three years as COPA’s Chief Administrator” Roberts said in a statement. “I led COPA from the very start of my tenure with a keen awareness of the new agency’s importance in enabling civilian oversight of law enforcement.”

Roberts said COPA has “assumed an unprecedented role” in making sure use of deadly force by officers is investigated thoroughly, and also that its findings are as public and transparent as possible.

“The progress we have made in improving accountability practices and outcomes in the face of exceptional challenges is a direct result of the dedication of COPA staff,” Roberts said.

A call to Roberts seeking further comment was not immediately returned.

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 investigation into the botched raid on the wrong home that forced a crying and pleading Anjanette Young to stand naked before Chicago police officers for 40 minutes.

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, just days after Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced she, too, is leaving, along with her two top aides.

On Wednesday, the mayor acknowledged it’s been a “difficult year” and “a lot of people are taking stock of where they are” as she approaches her mid-term anniversary on May 20.

But, she added: “I feel very comfortable about where we are as a city, as a mayor’s office. We’ve got great people who are working their tails off every day to service the residents of this great city.”

On Wednesday, Lightfoot was asked point-blank whether she had demanded or requested Roberts’ resignation.

“No, I did not seek her resignation. But I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been extraordinarily unhappy with the way that they’ve handled a number of things — not the least of which was taking over 18 months to move forward on an investigation regarding Anjanette Young,” Lightfoot said.

“A lot of that time, nothing happened. That’s not acceptable. And I’ve been very candid — both in public and also directly — about the fact that, I think 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.”

COPA also angered the mayor by taking the extraordinary step of recommending that the officer who shot 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez in Portage Park early on March 31 be placed on paid desk duty after serving the 30-day leave that is standard after all police shootings.

That blindsided Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, who told reporters that same day that he had not been notified of COPA’s recommendation.

“I respect the independence of COPA. [But] they’ve got to do a better job of communicating with the superintendent. It shouldn’t be that the press knows about something before the superintendent of police knows about something,” Lightfoot said last week.

“That’s a communication issue that COPA absolutely has to solve.”

A former Police Board president, Lightfoot says she can assume only that COPA’s rare recommendation about the officer who shot Alvarez is “premised upon COPA’s investigation” into the shooting and the “statement that they took, I believe, from the officers involved” in the foot chase that culminated in Alvarez’s death.

“We’ll see where this plays out. But that’s really a conversation that has to be had between the superintendent and COPA about what their basis is for recommending that that officer in particular be stripped of his police powers,” she said.

“It’s a big deal to strip somebody of their police powers. And there’s got to be a good justification for doing it. Presumably, COPA believes that there is. But, that conversation really needs to take place between them.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said Roberts called him as a courtesy to let him know she was resigning, effective next Friday.

“We didn’t discuss why she’s leaving or whether there was any pressure. That’s between her and the mayor,” Taliaferro said.

“We just expressed the enjoyment of having worked together on police reform and public safety issues within the city.”

A former Chicago Police officer, Taliaferro was asked whether Roberts’ departure is a loss for the city.

“Of course. When she first sat down and had a discussion with me prior to her confirmation, she had great plans for the city with regard to police accountability. She has upheld what she came in intending to accomplish,” Taliaferro said.

“She may not have reached all of our goals. But I certainly believe she did a fine job with regard to police accountability. And I can tell you something that we didn’t have before — she’s taken community outreach to a whole new level.”

Lightfoot’s criticism of how long it was taking for COPA to investigate the botched Young raid deflected some of the heat that the mayor was getting over her changing story about what she knew and when she knew it about the raid and about the efforts by her Law Department to conceal bodycam video of the raid.

Does Taliaferro consider that hypocritical?

“The mayor has publicly owned up to her mistakes as well. … She’s made her concessions, her apologies,” the alderman said.

“Why would that be hypocritical to not only say, ‘I’ve made mistakes. And I’ve not done something well’ as well as the people that you lead? It would only be hypocritical if she would condemn someone else’s actions, but leave her own actions quiet and private.”

Deputy mayor appointed

Also on Wednesday, Lightfoot appointed John O’Malley, her former Police Board colleague, to be the city’s deputy mayor for public safety.

O’Malley, a former chief deputy U.S. marshal, most recently served as director of corporate security at William Blair & Co.

He replaces Susan Lee, who resigned last fall after just 16 months on the job.

On the Police Board, O’Malley agreed with the board’s final decision roughly 88% of the time. That put him in him in the middle of the pack, according to the Chicago Justice Project.

Among his most controversial votes was the decision to exonerate two officers accused of handcuffing a 10-year-old boy in 2018 and questioning him about a gun. Roberts criticized that decision after COPA recommended 30-day suspensions.

Contributing: Frank Main