By CHRISTOPHER AMATI
Writer and human rights activist Jamie Kalven, founder of the Hyde Park-based Invisible Institute, hosted Sharon Fairley, head of the newly-created Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), for a talk about the transition from one police oversight board, Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), to COPA Wednesday night, March 22, at the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave.
Kalven, author of Code of Silence, an expose on a cover-up within the Chicago Police Department , served as moderator and asked Fairley questions about the make-up of the new oversight authority and it’s differences from the bodies of the same function that have come before it.
Fairley said it was almost impossible to transition from one agency to another, stressing instead that COPA will function differently enough for comparisons to be invalid.
“We have to stop calling it a transition,” Fairley said. “This agency will take on a new role. Everything will be different about it. ”
She said there are several things that make COPA different are, “Who we are, what we do- this is a work in progress ever since the mayor announced the ordinance.”
In August of 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an ordinance in relation to police oversight that was voted on by the City Council on Sept. 29, 2016.
Fairley said the ordinance “really stepped up to the plate.”
She said COPA will be 50 percent bigger in terms of manpower than IPRA and that it would have three ranks: investigative, administrative and public engagement. In addition to having more bodies she said COPA will be a reduced ratio of supervisors to investigators dropping the previous ratio of 10-to-one to five-to-one. She also said there will be a change in who will handle the investigations, providing an independent review. Previously, the process was left in the hands of the office of investigations and there were often no charges or other actions against the accused officers.
Fairley said a higher level of investigative skill will be required to examine misconduct.
Kalven asked if there would be a way to analyze behavior among problematic officers, if there was a pattern of analysis.
Fairley said there were mechanisms where there weren’t before, mentioning certain indicators such as repeat offenses or a spike in complaints toward an officer who had not been previously cited.
“With COPA we can ask what is the cause of [the officer’s misconduct], we can look for recommendations on how to eliminate it, we can intervene early. ”
Kalven said there had been a “failure to connect the dots” when it came to recognizing patterns of misconduct. He asked Fairley if that was going to change.
Fairley said the ordinance that has already been instituted, “directs us to take into account an officer’s history.”
She said there will 15 major case specialists who will be assigned to the most serious cases involving the death of a civilian or other special circumstance. These basic level investigators will receive special training in addition to the higher level investigators already in place.
According to Fairley, the recruitment process was nationwide and had more than 900 applicants for 80 investigator spots. All current employees of IPRA who wished to keep their jobs were required to reapply, and a third of the positions in COPA have been filled from the ranks of the IPRA.
Fairley also said that police cooperation was essential to reform.
“It has to work for the police as well as the general public,” she said. “They don’t like a civilian judging what they do. They will always fight oversight. We have to reassure them they’re going to get a fair shake.”
Fairley said, “Civilian oversight is just a complicated, messy thing. Different parties in the process want different things.”
Kalven spoke briefly about the new use of force guidelines, saying that the process to reach them had gone through an “admirably transparent process” but that they were then revised without civilian input.
Fairley spoke about the heart of the process and what it means to the people of the city as well as the police.
“This [the new regulations and oversight] is the mechanism by which the department communicates to its member what their expectations are,” Fairley said. “It’s going to be emphasized in the training. These policies are the measuring stick.”
Kalven said that there are some good things about it [the ordinance and subsequent formation of COPA] but there are some things missing. He said that some skepticism about replacing one acronym-laden review board with another was natural. He asked Fairley how progress was going to be measured.
“Quality it the key metric,” Fairley said.
She said there would be public access to COPA and a way for a complainant to track the progress of their cases online.
During the question and answer portion of the meeting, attendees expressed doubt that any board could make a change, insisting that racism at the core of the city’s power structure would obviate any attempt to restructure police behavior towards minorities.
“We have to hold their feet to the fire,” Fairley said the room of about 100 attendees.
“It’s going to take some time. We have to make it clear that there is a no-tolerance policy.”