Who Will Control New Agency That Probes Police Shootings? | WBEZ
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Who Will Control New Agency That Probes Police Shootings?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is calling the City Council’s approval of his plan to revamp police oversight a big step forward. But Wednesday’s vote left an unanswered question about a new agency that will investigate police-misconduct complaints and shootings by cops: Who is going to control it?

The agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), will replace the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which took a lot of blame after a judge last November ordered the Emanuel administration to release a video that showed a white police officer fatally shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald. The video fed an impression that IPRA was failing to hold officers accountable.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Emanuel said the ordinance marked “the beginning of a journey, not the end.”

That journey eventually could include a host of changes imposed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched a probe of the city’s policing during the public outcry over the McDonald video.

But the mayor’s team is focusing on his promise to create a citizen board that will give the community a role in police oversight. The ordinance that sets up COPA does not say anything about that board, but the city’s top attorney on Tuesday promised that the administration will define it in legislation introduced in the “first quarter” of next year.

Many aldermen who voted for COPA said they were counting on that promise.

“We want to make sure that this process is an inclusive one, where everybody is in and nobody is left out,” Ald. Milly Santiago, 31st, said in the floor debate before the vote.

What is not clear is whether this community board will have real power, starting with authority to select COPA’s chief, as recommended by a task force created by Emanuel after the McDonald video was released.

During Wednesday’s council debate, Ald. John Arena, 45th, praised the COPA measure but implored his council colleagues to make sure the community board gets “real teeth, real funding and real power” over both the new agency and the police department.

“If we fail there, then all the work that we’ve put into (the COPA ordinance) will be for nothing,” Arena warned.

Interviewed after the vote, Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, said the power over the police department needs to extend to policy making to address what he sees as major problems.

Sawyer, the council’s Black Caucus chair, said those include “racial bias and other things that we’re tending not to talk about enough when we’re talking about police reform — the culture of the police department and its inherent bias, sometimes, that it has against people of color.”

Even if the community board gets to choose the COPA chief, gets a dependable budget and gets policy-making authority, there is another big question about it. Who is going to appoint its members? The mayor?

University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson said the answer will provide a strong clue on whether the board will “really represent the community and the citizens.”

Simpson, who served as an alderman from 1971 to 1979, said the city since those years has had more than a half-dozen political crises stemming from police scandals. Each time, he says, there have been attempts at “repairing the Police Board or creating new agencies.”

All those attempts have failed, Simpson said, because the police-oversight entities “have never been given either the independence or the strength or the ability to curb police abuse.”

At least one big group of Chicagoans is openly pushing for less citizen involvement. That group is Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents 10,000 of the city’s cops.

“Violent crime and shootings and homicides are going through the roof,” Lodge 7 President Dean Angelo Sr. said. “If we continue to blanket this profession with multiple layers of civilian involvement — [people] that don’t know how this job is supposed to be performed — that’s very dangerous for the law-abiding populations of our inner cities.”

Emanuel is giving few hints about how much influence the community board will have in police accountability. To craft the ordinance that will set up the board, the mayor says his administration is working with community groups.

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

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