Friday marks the official start of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which will be tasked with investigating police shootings and serious allegations of misconduct like excessive force.
The new agency, known by the acronym COPA (pronounced like Copacabana), is the latest effort to change Chicago’s system of disciplining officers, a key concern of activists, experts and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The agency will replace the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which was scrapped amidst the public outcry after the release of a video that showed a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Below is a look at how COPA formed and what the change will really mean. Also, press the play button to listen to Sharon Fairley, the chief administrator for COPA, discuss her vision for the agency.
What’s the difference between COPA and IPRA?
Let’s start with what’s the same. COPA will have largely the same mission as IPRA: investigate allegations of police misconduct and recommend discipline. Chief administrator Sharon Fairley will stay on to head COPA, which will have the same offices on the Near West Side.
But when training kicked off in May, Fairley insisted COPA will be different from IPRA.
“We have been in the process of building a new agency from the ground up,” Fairley said. “So everything about the way we operate is going to be different.”
The key difference, officials said, is how COPA is funded compared to its predecessor. The ordinance that created the new agency guaranteed it gets at least one percent of the annual appropriation for the Chicago Police Department. IPRA had no such guaranteed funding.
Unlike IPRA, COPA officials will also be permitted to seek outside legal counsel rather than being forced to rely on the city’s Law Department, which is controlled by the mayor.
The new agency will also be bigger, with a budgeted 100 investigators, compared to about 75 for IPRA. And officials said those investigators will be better trained.
How is the training different?
Every COPA investigator and member had to go through something the agency dubbed “COPA Academy,” a six-week training program on investigative processes, practices, and principles.
Fairley said it was a “much more comprehensive approach to training.”
“IPRA training was, I wouldn’t say, haphazard. But it wasn’t as systematically done,” Fairley said.
She said there will also be a focus on continued training that wasn’t available under her predecessors.
There are also tougher requirements for those employees who will be investigating police shootings. COPA includes a new position, called a major case specialist. Fairley said employees with that job will have to get state training to qualify as “lead homicide investigators.”
Why did city officials decide to dump IPRA?
When IPRA was created in 2007 it was heralded as an answer to complaints about the old police accountability system, the police department’s Office of Professional Standards.
But in the years between its inception and the release of the Laquan McDonald video in November of 2015, IPRA investigated about 400 shootings by police — and found the officers justified in every incident except two.
A WBEZ investigation found that IPRA leadership pressured investigators to reverse findings that went against police, and fired one investigator who refused to do so.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force report called the police accountability system broken, and said Chicago residents feel that police “have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
In May of 2016, Emanuel announced his plans to replace IPRA. He said he wanted a more independent civilian investigative agency.
What’s the reaction been to the new police accountability agency?
Police reform advocates scored major victories in the creation of COPA. Emanuel’s original ordinance did not include a funding floor or the freedom to get outside legal counsel — two things that critics said were essential for true independence.
After the final version passed last October, aldermen who are frequent Emanuel opponents applauded him for being willing to compromise.
The then-head of the city’s largest police union criticized the plan, saying the police department needed less citizen involvement, not more.
“If we continue to blanket this profession with multiple layers of civilian involvement 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,” said Dean Angelo, the former head of the union that represents the city’s police officers.
In its report, the U.S. Department of Justice struck a tone of cautious optimism about the new agency.
“[COPA] appears to have the potential to be a meaningful improvement over IPRA, but gaps also appear to remain within this entity and through all other components of Chicago’s accountability systems,” the report reads.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.