Chicago’s new police oversight agency promised that misconduct investigations would be transparent and quick under a new city law. But provisions of the law allow police to drag out public disclosures in cases where officers are found at fault.
When Chicago’s new police oversight agency opened in September, city officials pledged that misconduct investigations would be transparent and quick. But even as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) makes more information available to the public, its timeliness is in question. Instead of making its reports public as soon as investigations are completed, as its predecessor did, COPA withholds the ones in which it found an officer at fault until the findings have been vetted by police officials and officers have been notified, reports ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune. As a result, in its first two months of operation, COPA has yet to publish the results of a single case in which it has ruled against an officer. It could be months or more before those “summary reports” — which detail the allegations, investigative process, evidence and conclusions — are made public.
The agency says it is hamstrung by the ordinance that created it. The law, pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, includes language preventing the agency from immediately sharing its reports with the public. Sharon Fairley, who recently resigned as COPA’s chief administrator to run for Illinois attorney general, said she objected to that provision in the ordinance, passed by the City Council last year, but was overruled by the city’s Law Department. “I felt for transparency purposes we wanted our reports to go out as soon as they were available,” Fairley said. “That process (will) be delayed by however much time it takes for the process to play out.” That process can be lengthy. After COPA recommends discipline, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has up to 90 days to respond. COPA is barred from posting its investigative reports — and any disagreement or pushback from the Police Department — until the review process has been completed and the officer is notified of the discipline. There is no deadline for that last step.