The agency that investigates Chicago police shootings is being underfunded, yet again

A police officer wears a vet saying officer in a crowd
Hundreds gather in front of the Chicago Police Department to protest that no Kentucky police officer will face charges in Breonna Taylor’s death. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
A police officer wears a vet saying officer in a crowd
Hundreds gather in front of the Chicago Police Department to protest that no Kentucky police officer will face charges in Breonna Taylor’s death. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The agency that investigates Chicago police shootings is being underfunded, yet again

In the wake of the police killing of Laquan McDonald, and increased public attention on the city of Chicago’s failure to discipline problem officers, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability was pitched as an agency that would have the independence needed to effectively investigate police shootings and alleged officer misconduct.

And to ensure that the agency was effective the city council decided to make sure it had money. The 2016 ordinance creating COPA stated that it would have an annual budget of at least 1% of that of the Chicago Police Department. But in this year’s budget, the city is once again failing to meet that mark.

The recommended police budget for the next fiscal year is more than $1.7 billion. The amount budgeted for COPA, meanwhile, is under $15 million, millions short of the 1% requirement.

City budget documents contend that the budget is still within the law because of so-called “fringe” costs like healthcare and pension payments. However, those fringe costs do not factor into the CPD budgeted amount used to set the 1% floor.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, questioned the budget office’s calculations at a city council budget hearing on Thursday.

“When COPA was created, there was a real interest on the part of this council to ensure that the agency had the funds needed to succeed in its job, because it’s a very important job,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “If we put that 1% floor in there, it’s for a reason, right? We want to make sure that [COPA is] well resourced.”

Ramirez-Rosa said he believes the city “might be violating the city code” by underfunding COPA and said the city was using “creative math” to make it appear like the city was complying with its own ordinance.

Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward, meanwhile, said he was concerned the mayor’s office was viewing the mandatory minimum budget as “a ceiling not a floor.”

In a statement, Rose Tibayan, the spokeswoman for the city’s budget office said “the current calculation of the COPA floor is the same method of calculation that has been used since COPA’s inception in 2017.” And, Tibayan said, the budget office “works closely with COPA each year on their budget to ensure that COPA has the resources it needs in order to carry out their mission.”

Tibayan did not respond to the question of whether the city was violating its own ordinance by continuing to use that calculation.

COPA’s Interim Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten did respond to Ramirez-Rosa’s questions during Thursday’s hearing, telling him she was “aware of the issue.”

“I think there are questions about the way that that calculation is done. And those questions are certainly things that I’m willing to address more fully,” Kersten said.

But, Kersten said for this year, she was getting all of the money in her budget that she requested.

The office’s upcoming budget is slated to increase by more than $1 million, up to nearly $15 million. The majority of that increase will pay for 10 new positions in the office, including a brand new video release and transparency unit with eight positions.

Kersten said the new unit was essential for the agency, which is responsible for releasing videos of police shootings within 60 days of shooting incidents per city ordinance. As of right now, Kersten said, COPA does not have a single employee dedicated to responding to public records requests. That will change with the new unit.

“I really look at transparency as sort of the beginning of public trust and it’s a non-negotiable beginning,” Kersten said. “Without a transparent agency, there can be no attempt to build the trust that our city is so, so looking to have in its accountability system.”

The eight new positions for the transparency unit and two other jobs being added in this round of budgeting are on top of 21 positions already vacant in the office. Kersten said they were along the road toward filling many of those vacant positions. However, turnover has been a consistent issue for the accountability agency.

“We’ve always had vacancies in investigations, our agency has never had the full benefit of the additional resources that we were afforded back in our inception, we’ve never run at capacity for any significant length of time,” Kersten said.

The 31 open positions represent more than 20% of the total COPA staff.

Aldermen raised concerns about whether the open positions, and the possibility of underfunding, was slowing down the agency’s investigations. The ordinance creating COPA set a goal of completing investigations within six months. The budget documents for COPA boast of completing “over 70 percent” of investigations within a year.

“While I really appreciate and commend you and your colleagues for the work that you’ve done … I’m not convinced that you have the resources that you need to provide the sort of timely investigations and conclusions that we’ve set your organization up to do,” Martin said, addressing Kersten. “We need to make sure one, when you’re getting the complaints that you’re working through them as quickly as possible for the complainants to know that justice is going to be served, as well as for officers, who at times feel that some of the complaints that had been shared are not done in good faith.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.