Chief of New Police Accountability Agency Vows Independent Voice

The chief of the city’s new police accountability agency is promising a new day is about to dawn for the investigation of allegations of excessive force in Chicago.

Sharon Fairley is the administrator of the new Citizen Office of Police Accountability (COPA). When it officially takes charge next week, the agency it replaces, the often-criticized Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) will cease to exist.

“Everything’s different,” says Fairley. “Who we are, what we do, and how we do it.”

IPRA drew fire from multiple quarters over the extent to which cases were cleared without sanctions against officers. After the firestorm of protest over the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald, the decision was made to scrap the agency completely and start over.

“All of our policies and practices have been rebuilt and redesigned from top to bottom,” Fairley says. “We redesigned the organization from scratch, just to get it right.”

The result, she says, is a new agency which is bigger and better funded than its predecessor. And---she vows---more independent.

“We’re not the police, and there’s a point to that,” she says. “We are civilians, right? We’re not law enforcement.”

IPRA was criticized for a culture which too-often took officers at their word. In some cases, IPRA investigators were alleged to have coached officers during troubling investigations. Few complaints were ever sustained. Investigations dragged on for years.

“It was immediately apparent to me what those issues were when I started,” Fairley says. Her goal now, she says, is for every investigation to be closed within six months.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

“I believe that her heart is certainly in the right place,” says Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago, a longtime IPRA critic. “My concern is, what happens when the spotlight is off.”

Futterman argues that by its own enabling legislation, COPA still does not have the transparency which the public has demanded after IPRA’s failings.

“The mayor still has his tentacles in here,” he says. “Take the power away from the mayor, take the power away from City Hall if you want community trust in this, and if you want actual and real independence. Because we’ve lived with this already.”

Futterman notes that last year’s scathing Police Accountability Task Force report called for a new agency, overseen by an independent community oversight board.

“As long as COPA is not fundamentally accountable to the community,” he said, “you still have the same structure that caused the problems we have seen with IPRA.”

Fairley insists her agency does have that independence. She has a four year term as administrator, and can only be removed for cause. COPA’s budget, roughly twice that of its predecessor, has a minimum set by law at one percent of CPD funding. And she notes that on her new staff of 141, only 26 came from the old agency. Plus, by law, no one from CPD may be employed by COPA until they have been away from the department for at least five years.

“I believe we have hired neutral investigators,” she says. “It was a very rigorous process to get a job here.”

She speaks of the elephant in the room---officers who cover for each other during complex and controversial investigations.

“Because they are partners, they do rely on each other,” she says. “This is an uncomfortable duty, but it is a duty.”

“If we analyze a case and there’s any evidence that there’s been an attempt to cover up or conceal misconduct, we’re going to call it out.”

Fairley concedes it was important to build a new, non-police culture in her new agency. She believes that can and will happen.

“We are civilians and we are members of the community,” she says. “But we are professionals---we are professional investigators---meaning we have skills, right? And we follow the rules and protocols for how investigations are meant to be conducted.”

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