By Taylor Hartz | Staff Writer
October 9, 2017
A new program for civilian police oversight launched in September, offering residents of Chicago a place to direct their complaints and compliments about Chicago police officers.
The new program, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, serves to investigate allegations of police misconduct, identify patterns in misconduct, and make policy changes to improve the CPD.
At an inaugural ceremony at the South Shore Community Center on Sept. 15, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city is “not rebranding, we’re rebuilding” when it comes to police accountability efforts.
COPA is replacing a previous city program, the Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA. Sharon Fairley, then Chief administrative officer for COPA, said the public can expect to see big changes from the old program.
“The whole process has been redesigned to focus on quality and timeliness,” said Fairley, who has since stepped down to run for attorney general.
After completing a six-week COPA Academy for civilian oversight training, new investigators and legal staff were sworn in at the inauguration, delivering an oath on their commitment to integrity, oversight and timeliness while completing “fair and just investigations.”
COPA now has over 120 active employees, and is still looking to hire more. The previous program was only allotted 54 investigators, and was never fully staffed.
When asked how COPA will differ from IPRA, Fairley rattled off a list of changes and improvements.
Several positions have been added to the COPA team to ensure proper operation, including an evidence specialist, digital forensic analysts, increased legal oversight, and a new investigations operations and quality management unit.
While the team expects to operate better internally, their “collaboration and coordination” with Chicago police departments is also expected to improve.
The new COPA program, said the mayor, is “a milestone on the road to reform” that will ensure quality interactions between police and Chicago residents.
However, COPA is just one piece of a city wide effort to improve police relations, said the mayor, who detailed plans for increased police staffing, and stressed that officer training is an integral part of reform. The mayor said better training is essential for public safety and necessary for officers to do their job.
According to the mayor, CPD officers this year will undergo improved training courses in how to respond to mental health calls, and will receive the “training and resources to know that not every event requires escalation.” De-escalation training is a tactic often used to reduce the number of officer involved fatal shootings.
“Every instance an officer has with a resident of the city of Chicago is a teaching moment,” said the mayor, adding that every officer in the city will wear a body camera by the end of the year.
At the Sept. 15 press conference Fairley announced that the program has finalized new protocols with police departments. After working with city departments for several months, Fairley said “ I think we’re all on the same page.”
New protocols have been established for how crime scenes are managed that will allow COPA staff to conduct investigations more quickly and thoroughly, and allow “the two agencies to work side by side,” said Fairley.
“Finally there will be the rules of the road that govern how these scenes are handled.”
Addressing a timeliness issue that IPRA faced with past investigations, Fairley said COPA personnel will have immediate access to the scene when they arrive, and will review video surveillance at the same time the police department does, rather than after. There will still be 24-hour delay before COPA investigators can speak to officers who have discharged a weapon in an officer involved shooting.
In addition to more than doubling their staff size, Fairley said the program will now have a pool of experts investigators can draw on, specializing in subjects like forensic medicine and crime scene reconstruction.
COPA is now accepting reports from the public, with a new website that offers resources for filing complaints and explains the steps for following an investigation. COPA accepts complaints and compliments online, over the phone, by mail, in litigation, or by visiting the COPA office at 1615 W Chicago Avenue, 4th floor.
For those looking to follow up on an investigation, a case portal on the website offers access to open cases, and data from prior investigations can be accessible on the website. Fairley said the department was working to update their backlog of older investigations.