New COPA Chief Talks Confirmation, Speed of Investigations and More

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After a contentious City Council vote, Andrea Kersten has been confirmed as the new head of Chicago's Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the city's police oversight agency that currently has roughly 1,700 open investigations and receives about 5,000 complaints per year.

Kersten has worked for COPA since 2016 and has served as interim chief administrator since May. Some pushed back on her nomination over the agency's report on the botched 2019 raid of Anjanette Young's home. That report, written five months before Chicago Police Officer Ella French was brutally murdered but not released until several months after her death, recommended a three-day suspension for French - a move that drew sharp criticism.

"Just the issue of police reform, police misconduct, it evokes really strong emotional responses in people," Kersten said. "People have strong opinions about the work of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and frankly people have strong opinions about how our city should be addressing issues surrounding police reform."

Kersten has repeatedly apologized for the way the matter was handled and said Thursday both that she was "heartened" by feedback she'd received from rank-and-file officers and that some changes need to be made.

"The one thing I know for certain is that there needed to be communication to that gold star family that that report was coming," she said. "But I do want to work with the police department to make sure that there are protocols in place so that something like this could never happen again."

Kersten was confirmed Wednesday by a vote of 31 to 14.

When asked about the speed of COPA's investigations, Kersten said the average time an investigation takes has been trending toward 18 months, noting a drop from the two-and-a-half years its predecessor agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, would typically spend on a case.

Last year, COPA sent two sets of recommendations to Chicago Police Supt. David Brown about officers in the scandal surrounding disgraced Sgt. Ronald Watts, who went to prison over his team’s shakedowns and framing of residents at the former Ida B. Wells housing project.

Because of pushback from CPD and the city's law department, those recommendations still haven't been made public - but Kersten suggested there may be movement soon.

"In the Department of Law's review of those investigations, they identified some issues that need to be re-addressed with respect to investigative steps and, you know, not wanting to jeopardize the likelihood of a successful Police Board hearing, we've worked and collaborated with the Department of Law to make sure that we can resolve those issues in as timely of a manner as possible and anticipate that they will be able to move forward with filing charges, to move and initiate Police Board proceedings in the very near future," Kersten said.

The Watts scandal is especially indicative of the slow pace of some investigations. Despite more than 100 exonerations, the Watts officers have each been investigated one-by-one for the last six years.

When asked why the officers aren't being investigated as a group, Kersten said she's posed that very same question to COPA's investigative staff and legal team to "try to work on whether there could be sort of an aggregate case that sort of encapsulated the majority of these allegations in a manner that could push the issue through to a quicker conclusion."

"We are working through what that might look like logistically, but all of those contractual provisions and the way labor law functions, those are systems that have been put in place to kind of prevent that kind of treatment of these allegations," she said, adding, "But we're certainly exploring that as an option to try to bring ultimate resolution not to just one or two cases but to all of the cases involving this team of officers."

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