Chicago police oversight agency to tackle backlog of cop disciplinary probes

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability plans to start reviewing about 850 pending investigations on July 17.

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Andrea Kersten, the interim head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, sits with her family before the City Council voted to confirm her nomination during a City Council meeting at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday morning, Feb. 23, 2022.

Andrea Kersten sits with her family before the City Council voted to confirm her nomination as head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability Feb. 23, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The agency tasked with probing allegations of Chicago police misconduct will begin reviewing and potentially closing out more than half of its disciplinary investigations next month to get a handle on a huge and longstanding backlog.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability plans to start scrutinizing roughly 850 pending investigations on July 17, focusing mostly on cases that have lasted more than two years and involve operational violations, like issues with paperwork and activating body-worn cameras.

The push aims to cut down COPA’s backlog of more than 1,400 cases and make it easier to close out all investigations in a more timely manner, in part to ensure disciplinary recommendations aren’t overturned or cut down by arbitrators who take into account how long probes take.

“If we can right-size our caseload, I truly believe that is the path to being able to deliver the kind of accountability that is asked of us as an agency,” said COPA Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten, who will detail the plan during Thursday’s meeting of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability.

When COPA was launched in 2017 after the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the agency was left with nearly 1,000 cases from its troubled predecessor, the Independent Police Review Authority.

In addition to that mountain of cases, Kersten noted that COPA inherited “a legacy of lack of integrity or independence in our investigations and in our investigative process.”

Although Kersten said she’s proud of COPA’s culture and its efforts to shirk IPRA’s reputation, the oversight body has struggled to clear cases and has had four leaders in six years. Kersten replaced Sydney Roberts, who was forced out in 2021 after Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticized the slow pace of COPA investigations.

COPA officials leading the effort to review old cases will soon look to close many of them with nondisciplinary recommendations that will likely result in calls for more training, Kersten said. The program will run through the end of the year, at which point COPA plans to reevaluate its caseload.

“This initiative to achieve greater timeliness will be a benefit to the entire city — to the complainants that are impacted by these encounters with police; to officers that deserve quick resolution, especially when there is misconduct, so that they know how to correct it so that we can prevent it from happening in the future; and really for the broader accountability system,” Kersten said.

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