Updated 3:35 p.m.
Nine Chicago aldermen are calling for a City Council hearing about alleged pro-police bias at the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates shootings by officers, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she has “confidence” in the agency’s leader.
The aldermen, led by Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, have signed on to a council resolution that questions the “leadership and effectiveness” of Sydney Roberts, COPA’s chief administrator.
“If the ship is going down, then it’s time to right the ship,” Hairston said about COPA.
Under Roberts, appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in April 2018, the agency “has internalized a bias in favor of protecting Chicago police officers who are accused of misconduct,” the resolution claims.
The resolution also decries an exodus of investigators since the departure of Sharon Fairley, who ran the agency as a mayoral task force and U.S. Department of Justice investigators recommended police-oversight reforms following the 2015 release of a dashcam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke’s fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald.
Emanuel brought in Fairley, a former federal prosecutor, to clean out what had become a badly discredited agency, known then as the Independent Police Review Authority.
A WBEZ investigation in 2014 raised questions about IPRA’s impartiality after six former sworn law enforcement officers were installed as managers, including the agency’s top three officials.
Before Roberts took over at COPA, she spent most of her career in law enforcement, most recently as director of the Illinois Secretary of State’s Police Department. At COPA, she earns a $171,720 salary, records show.
Under Roberts, Hairston said, COPA seems to be returning to its old ways. The alderman pointed to the agency’s handling of Sgt. Khalil Muhammad, who shot an unarmed teen with mental disabilities in an off-duty incident captured on video in 2017.
COPA concluded that Muhammad acted in an “objectively unreasonable” fashion yet recommended a 90-day suspension, a decision that prompted dissension within the agency and criticism from police accountability advocates, who argued the sergeant should be fired.
Lightfoot’s office did not respond to whether she would support a City Council hearing on COPA.
But the mayor said Tuesday afternoon she does not share the aldermen’s concern about Roberts.
“I know how difficult it is,” Lightfoot said about the chief administrator’s job, which she held herself from 2002 to 2004, when the agency was a CPD unit called the Office of Professional Standards.
“You’re never going to please anybody,” Lightfoot said. “You’ve got officers who believe that the only reason you exist is to ruin careers of officers. You’ve got community members who believe that you’re way to pro-police.”
Lightfoot said Roberts understands that “her job is to call balls and strikes and to make sure she is doing the right thing to investigate these very serious allegations of police misconduct.”
A written statement from COPA says Roberts’ decisions “are informed by her years of experience investigating police officers and government officials — first as a member of an internal affairs unit and later during her more than 10 years as an inspector general and first deputy inspector general with the State of Illinois.”
Since her COPA appointment, the statement says, “Chief Roberts has brought fairness, objectivity and impartiality to every investigation.”
Hairston’s resolution was introduced to the full City Council last Wednesday but got little attention as Lightfoot presided over her first council meeting. The council referred the resolution to its Public Safety Committee without debate.
That panel’s new chairman, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward, vowed to “take seriously all the allegations in this resolution” but declined to comment further.
Taliaferro, himself a former police sergeant, was elected to the council in 2015 and joined its Progressive Reform Caucus.
The resolution signers include Hairston, fellow aldermanic veterans Pat Dowell, 3rd, David Moore, 17th, Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th, Roderick Sawyer, 6th, and Scott Waguespack, 32nd, as well as newcomers Stephanie Coleman, 16th, Maria Hadden, 49th, and Jeanette Taylor, 20th.
Blair Paddock contributed.