• Erin Hegarty
    OCT 01, 2021

    COPA clears backlog of cases left by predecessor agency, plans to expand transparency and outreach

    Andrea Kersten, interim chief of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, answers questions during a budget hearing Thursday.

    The city agency tasked with investigating police misconduct complaints continues to see an increase in the number of complaints filed, but for the first time in four years, the office has cleared a backlog of cases left behind by its predecessor agency, the office’s interim leader announced Thursday. 

    Andrea Kersten, interim chief of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), handily answered questions about her office from aldermen during a two-hour budget hearing Thursday. 

    Kersten took the helm of the office in May, when former Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts stepped down. Kersten told aldermen on Thursday that it is “a privilege to have the opportunity to lead COPA during this very important moment for police reform, specifically here in the city of Chicago." 

    Kersten told aldermen that she hopes to permanently lead the office.  

    "I don't think I would have accepted this interim opportunity if it was not my hope and intention to be able to serve as the next chief administrator of this agency,” Kersten said in response to a question from Ald. Sophia King (4).  

    "We've never run at capacity for any significant length of time,” Kersten said in a dig at the agency’s revolving door of leaders.  “Four years in as an agency, which should be the term for one chief administrator, and we're about to select our fourth — that's an issue."  

    COPA employees and Chicago residents deserve “continuity” from the office, she said. 

    COPA employees concluded investigations in “nearly 600 cases through the second quarter of 2021” and sustained 44 percent of allegations against members of the Chicago Police Department, Kersten told aldermen. 

    Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11) asked Kersten why she chose to include in her presentation to aldermen the statistic on the percentage of sustained allegations against police officers. 

    Kersten told Thompson that it is important for her to report the statistic because previous sustained case rates among predecessor agencies were "abysmal." 

    Additionally, Kersten said that "for the first time in COPA’s four-year history...we have completed the inherited backlog of open investigations from the prior civilian oversight agency [Independent Police Review Authority].” 

    COPA replaced the Independent Police Review Authority in 2017 after the older agency was accused of being ineffective at investigating police misconduct reports. A whistleblower at the agency alleged he was fired in retaliation for raising complaints that too many legitimate misconduct complaints were being ignored. 

    COPA is set to add a new eight-member “Video Release and Transparency Unit” to its office next year, which Kersten told aldermen accounts for most of the office’s proposed $1.4 million budget increase. 

    The new unit is expected to help boost the office’s outreach to ensure families of people affected by police misconduct are being treated with "dignity" and "privacy...the first time they watch anything that's going to be made public.” 

    Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22) asked how the wishes of families of people who have been victims of police misconduct factor into "potentially making the decision on whether public information becomes public or not." 

    Kersten told Rodriguez the office does not make exceptions to videos it releases publicly based on what a family or “impacted party goes through.” 

    The new COPA division is also expected to help add transparency to the office, Kersten said. 

    Responding to a question from Ald. Scott Waguespack (32), Kersten told aldermen her office does not employ any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officers.  

    COPA’s FOIA requests are currently handled by its legal department. "It's been paralegals, primarily, that are responsible for that,” Kersten said. 

    But the new Video Release and Transparency Unit would bring with it three new dedicated FOIA officers, she said. 

    Kersten also told aldermen her office is in the process of training its entire investigative staff in "trauma-informed interview practices."  

    “What we really came to realize at COPA is that basically everyone we're coming into contact with on some level has experienced a form of trauma,” she said. 

    The police oversight agency in April released the findings from its review of the Chicago Police Department’s wrong raid of Anjanette Young’s home, citing “significant deficiencies” on the part of officers the Sun-Times reported at the time. 

    Kersten said her office currently has 50 open search warrant cases, including eight from this year, 16 from 2020, 22 from 2019, three from 2018 and one case dating back to 2017. 

    Despite the fire COPA has faced in recent years, aldermen were largely complimentary of Kersten, including Ald. Pat Dowell (3), who chairs the budget committee. 

    Related: Aldermen press COPA and Chicago Police Board on volume of complaints, cases 

    “I learned a lot in this budget session about COPA,” Dowell said. “Your passion and your focus on the agency, and your excitement about your job comes through.”  

    “You had a good hearing today,” Dowell said, which Ald. Harry Osterman (48) noted is a rare compliment. 

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