Recently, I was one of a handful of Aldermen who voted “No” on the Mayor’s recently proposed new police oversight watchdog group, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). My biggest problem with the proposal is that COPA and the proposed new Inspector General position would still be under the thumb of Mayor Emanuel and future Mayors. COPA would not have a guaranteed, sustainable budget, ensuring future budgets to be at the whim of politics. Also, COPA as proposed would not have subpoena power, and would have to rely on the Mayor’s City Law Department for those investigatory powers, a clear and unarguable conflict of interest.
Since 2004, the City of Chicago has paid out a staggering sum of $625 million to victims of real and alleged police misconduct. Think about that for a moment. Remember the outrage over the $543 million property tax increase that I voted against? Well, these settlements are $85 million more than that coming out of the pockets of renters and owners alike.
Had we had common sense reforms in place twenty years ago, much of that $625 million in lawsuits and settlements could have been averted. In short, even if reforming the criminal justice system wasn’t a moral imperative, which it is, it is an economic imperative. Simply put, Chicago taxpayers cannot afford not to reform the way we police the city.
Police officers have a very difficult job. I have always honored the brave work of the men and women in law enforcement. Every day, they literally risk life and limb to keep our city safe from those who disrespect the law and devalue life. We ask them to do nearly impossible tasks that sometimes go beyond the scope of traditional law enforcement.
Because of my high regard for the hard-working overwhelming majority of those in law enforcement, I believe that they also need to be held to a high standard. When there is a serious allegation of misconduct in the police department, however rare it may be, the purported victims of the misconduct and the citizens of Chicago are owed a fair, impartial investigation of the facts in order to ensure that the principles of social justice are carried out.
Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that the only way ONLY way to restore trust between our citizens and our police is to create an elected body of community members from each of Chicago’s police districts empowered to hold police accountable.
I am for a police watchdog that is truly independent of City Hall influence. Even if my colleagues conclude that this Mayor would allow COPA to operate independently, there is no guarantee that future administrations would do the same.
The previous watchdog group, Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) clearly had to go. IPRA had been discredited by long delays in completing investigations that nearly always sided with officers. A recent story in the Chicago Sun Times, for instance, detailed that under this “independent” authority, only thirteen percent of the time was any action taken at all when a complaint against the police was filed. Furthermore, when 134,683 police complaints were filed over a period over of three and a half decades, less than 0.4% of the time the officer was fired.
Taking into account that there are many, many frivolous complaints filed by criminals looking for any way out of their predicament, because of their lack of independence, IPRA long ago lost any moral authority to make credible recommendations to the Police Board. There is near unanimity that IPRA had outlived its usefulness and needed to be replaced.
In one egregious example of a lack of independence by IPRA, during the furor over the tragic shooting of LaQuan McDonald, IPRA’s former chief coordinated with City Hall IPRA’s public response to the shooting, according to copies of emails obtained through FOIA. That is the opposite of independent.
The Mayor’s proposed reform COPA, while an improvement over IPRA, does not go far enough. As the Chicago Tribune, a normally reliable advocate of the Mayor’s agenda, recently stated “it is impossible to conclude that this Emanuel vision for police accountability would represent a truly independent check on potential interference from on high. That makes it unacceptable.”