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Police gather along side The Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown and leaders from other agencies city wide come together at a press conference at Olive Park on May 22, 2020, to announce the opening of the Summer Operations Center and to discuss how they will police over the Memorial Day weekend. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Manuel Martinez

Pressure eases on Chicago police oversight nominee after a public apology to slain cop Ella French’s family

Pressure may be easing on Chicago’s top police misconduct investigator after she publicly apologized to Ella French’s family Thursday night for the way her agency released an April report recommending a three-day suspension for the officer, who was killed on duty in August.

Andrea Kersten, interim chief of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, has come under harsh criticism amplified by news outlets that have mischaracterized the report’s release last week as a “posthumous recommendation” to discipline a slain officer widely hailed as a hero. Kersten’s apology, delivered in a speech before the Police Board, comes as she seeks City Council confirmation to be COPA’s permanent head.

“I have profound regret and sadness that the work of our agency has in any way hurt the French family and those who mourn her and I will work steadfastly to ensure that a situation such as this never happens again,” Kersten said.

Kersten’s mea culpa and her explanation about releasing the report seemed to satisfy a former CPD sergeant who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee.

“She had to weigh whether or not to follow the ordinance [and] have COPA accept this bad publicity and this black eye,” Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward, said. “So she chose to do what we expect any COPA administrator to do: That’s follow ordinances, policies and procedures.”

Taliaferro said COPA’s blunder was failing to take the edge off the report’s release: “There could have been a discussion with the family, members of the Chicago Police Department, my colleagues — anything to have softened the way this came out.”

Kersten was COPA’s chief of investigative operations when she signed off on the April 27 findings and discipline recommendations, which included suspension of French and seven other officers for their roles in the botched 2019 raid of social worker Anjanette Young’s home.

French’s policy violations, according to the report, included failing to activate her body camera in a timely manner and failing to document her interaction when she and other officers stopped someone outside Young’s home the night of the raid.

COPA’s report then went to Supt. David Brown, who signed off on the discipline recommendation July 26.

On Aug. 7, French was fatally shot and her partner, Carlos Yanez Jr., was critically wounded after they pulled over an SUV with expired plates on the South Side.

COPA could not release the report until all officers had been “served with any applicable discipline,” Kersten said in her Thursday speech. That service was not complete until Nov. 9, the day before the agency released the report.

Taliaferro said the blame for how the COPA report was released extends to Brown: “After the death occurred, he [knew] that this finding was out there.”

Despite Kersten’s apology, she said she had no choice but to release the report “when and how we did, under our ordinance, the consent decree and applicable FOIA provisions.”

An expert on public information law said blacking out French’s name from the report was not an option. “I don’t see any basis under state law for COPA to redact officer names or alter a report once it is finalized,” attorney Matt Topic said.

Kersten also countered the misinformation: “COPA did not and never would make a posthumous discipline recommendation for any officer and did not do so against Officer Ella French.”

“The mandate of transparency has been hard-fought-for change here in Chicago,” Kersten said, referring to her agency’s overhaul, which began in 2016 during a public uproar over teenager Laquan McDonald’s murder by Officer Jason Van Dyke and an alleged police coverup for the officer. “COPA, at its inception, was to embody that change.”

“Transparency is vital to public trust, but it only works when it is consistent,” Kersten said. “You have to do it the same way every time, even when it is uncomfortable or hard. This has been COPA’s North Star.”

Kersten said she was open to a conversation about “how our city wants transparency to function” and “ensuring that a situation like this never happens again.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, who joined 19 other City Council members signing a Tuesday letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot opposing Kersten as the COPA pick, praised the apology.

“She did seem sympathetic,” Taylor said.

Kersten’s appointment ultimately needs a majority vote by the City Council.

Taylor said her support depends on what Kersten does now to make sure something like this does not happen again.

“What will be the policy? What will be the law? What will COPA be doing differently under her tenure?” Taylor asked. “I need to know that I can trust her.”

Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, whose Northwest Side ward includes many police officers, said before Kersten’s speech that he would oppose the confirmation, mainly because she once reported him to the Board of Ethics for calling her five times.

Kersten, a former prosecutor, joined the agency in 2016. Lightfoot made her the interim leader in May after Sydney Roberts resigned as chief amid criticism of slow investigations, including the probe into the Young raid, which took COPA nearly a year-and-a-half.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him @ChipMitchell1.

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