The Chicago agency that investigates shootings by police and the most serious officer misconduct allegations recommended nearly double the number of cops for firing in 2021 as it did in the prior four years combined, according to a new city report.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability last year recommended 59 officers for discharge, up from 19 in 2020 and just 12 in the three-year span before that, according to an annual report posted to the agency’s website. Of those recommendations, a COPA spokesperson said, 49 took place after Mayor Lori Lightfoot publicly criticized then-COPA Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts for how long the agency was taking to complete investigations and after the mayor last May promoted Andrea Kersten to replace Roberts on an interim basis.
“We’re really trying to identify the cases that need to be closed,” said Kersten, whose appointment to head COPA permanently was approved by the City Council last week after political battling by council members unhappy with Kersten because she disclosed, as required by law, a discipline recommendation for Officer Ella French, who was killed on duty.
Kersten said COPA prioritized some of the dismissal cases because they had “tremendous public interest” but said the agency was “obviously not ever sacrificing investigative integrity for any one of these individual investigations.”
COPA would not provide a list of the officers recommended for discharge. Kersten said the agency could name only those whose cases had cleared a long series of procedural hurdles, including review by Police Supt. David Brown and the city’s Law Department. That process can drag out for months, sometimes even a year or two, before COPA’s discipline recommendation becomes public and the case reaches the Police Board, which makes the final decision on guilt or innocence and the fitting penalty.
But Kersten, interviewed Monday by WBEZ, mentioned some of the cases, including a 2020 incident at the Brickyard Mall in which police officers dragged a woman from her car, kneeled on her neck and allegedly left her blind in one eye. Another she mentioned involved an officer who took a swing at an 18-year-old activist, allegedly knocking out her tooth, during a protest that year at the former Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park.
Kersten said a COPA policy change accounted for many of last year’s dismissal recommendations. The agency, she said, cracked down on supervisors and co-workers of misbehaving cops who failed to intervene in the conduct or approved inaccurate reports about it.
“If there are sergeants or lieutenants or partner officers that had an obligation to do something different in that moment … or signed off on something that wasn’t a truthful reflection of what had occurred, there’s an ultimate accountability for those officers as well,” Kersten said. “Where previously a [discipline] recommendation would have been for one officer, it’s now for three or four officers pertaining to the same incident.”
Apart from the dismissal recommendations, COPA last year recommended suspensions of 30 days or more for 48 officers — as many as the agency recommended for that discipline level in the previous four years combined.
COPA’s discipline recommendations during the year drew criticism Monday from Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd Ward, one of the council members who opposed Kersten’s appointment.
“In the wake of anti-police sentiment — not only in our city but across the state — I’m not at all surprised that COPA has felt empowered to dish out these ridiculous punishments compared to previous years,” Tabares said.
Tabares said COPA’s dismissal recommendations send a message to officers: “If something goes wrong while they’re policing, we won’t back them up.”
“It really puts the public in jeopardy,” Tabares said.
John Catanzara — president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the main union for Chicago officers — declined to comment.
Catanzara has criticized both Kersten’s appointment and the agency in general, saying in a video posted to YouTube last month that “they’re not our friends.”
“They never have been, they never will be,” Catanzara said.