Agency set to investigate Chicago police misconduct poised to close hundreds of old cases to clear backlog, says chief

By Chicago 8 Min Read

The agency charged with investigating the misconduct of Chicago police officers could close several hundred cases without recommending the officers face discipline as part of an effort to clear a huge backlog, the Chief Administrator of the Civilian Bureau of police accountability, Andrea Kersten, told WTTW News on “Chicago Tonight” on Wednesday.

That substantial backlog — made up of cases dating back more than 18 months — is jeopardizing the ability of the agency, known as COPA, to investigate more recent complaints of significant misconduct by officers, Kersten said.

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“We need to get our house in order,” Kersten said. “These are tough choices.”

The “one-time” effort, which is scheduled to launch July 17, will investigate about 800 cases alleging misconduct by Chicago police officers, Kersten said.

Complaints involving shooting, excessive force, sexual misconduct, domestic violence or bias will not be considered for closure, Kersten said. Not even cases involving “egregious” misconduct or those involving minors or vulnerable adults, Kersten added.

Cases that could be closed as part of this effort include complaints that the officers inadvertently violated department policy, Kersten said, and the officers involved will receive additional training in an effort to ensure they don’t violate the same rule again.

“We need to be able to scale this caseload right,” Kersten said, adding that COPA will issue a written report detailing the cases, as well as data on which complaints have been resolved.

Kersten said she decided to take action on the COPA backlog after seeing dozens of disciplinary recommendations reversed or significantly reduced by arbitrators, who must make sure employees are treated fairly during disciplinary actions, ensuring complaints are handled quickly, typically within 18 months, and that any punishment is in line with the consequences faced by other officers with similar charges.

Investigations that take more than 18 months almost never result in disciplinary measures for officers that are confirmed after arbitration, Kersten said.

“This is the best path forward,” Kersten said.

A City Inspector General Audit 2021 detailed that police officers who have committed misconduct often see their punishment reduced after arbitration, which is required by the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by unions representing Chicago police officers.

This problem was highlighted when an arbitrator reduced or eliminated the suspensions for 14 of the police officers who lounged, slept and snacked in the burglarized office of US Representative Bobby Rush in the early morning hours of June 1, 2020, as rioting swept the south and west sides of the city in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

In all, 14 officers served a total of 33 days of suspension, almost 77% less than the sentence recommended by COPA and top police officials. The referee also issued a reprimand for another official, as first reported by WBEZ Chicago.

In another high-profile case, it took COPA 16 months under former Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts to investigate the botched break-in at Anjanette Young’s home in February 2019. That investigation found evidence that nearly a dozen officers had committed nearly 100 acts of misconduct during that incident.

Roberts resigned in May 2021 after facing sharp criticism from former mayor Lori Lightfoot for the slow investigation into the botched raid.

The Chicago Police Board voted June 16 to fire Sgt. Alex Wolinski, who led the failed raid. Wolinski could appeal that decision in Cook County Court.

Other probes took even longer. COPA recommended in April that officer Sammy Encarnacion, who went after Anthony Alvarez before his partner shot and killed the 22-year-old on March 31, 2021, be fired for abusing his girlfriend in 2017.

The slow pace of the Encarnacion investigation, which resulted in the violation of 17 departmental rules, meant he was still on the job nearly four years after committing a misconduct that was supposed to lead to his termination. Around that time, Encarnacion not only went after Alvarez before his partner shot him, but he shot two men outside a mall on the Far Northwest Side in 2022 without justification, according to COPA.

Long history of backlogs

COPA replaced the Independent Police Review Authority, known as IPRA, in September 2017, as part of reforms sparked by outrage over the 2014 police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Kersten is the fourth person to lead the agency in its less than six years of existence.

When COPA launched, it inherited nearly 1,000 cases from IPRA. It took until 2021 to resolve all of these complaints, Kersten said.

“Completing timely and thorough investigations is the last remaining promise of COPA’s formation,” Kersten said. “We need to be able to scale this case load right. True reform sometimes requires a reevaluation.

COPA’s jurisdiction has expanded to include complaints about unlawful search and seizure since its launch and now offers mediation and restorative justice to those who file complaints against officers.

Just as COPA emerged from the strain posed by the backlog of IPRA under Kersten’s leadership, the agency was inundated with nearly 400 complaints of police misconduct during the riots that swept the city following the murder of George Floyd police.

This has brought COPA to breaking point at a time when the agency was struggling to cope with the shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kersten said.

These challenges prompted Kersten to look closely at ways to reduce the agency’s backlog by settling old cases that were unlikely to lead to meaningful discipline.

Kersten said she hopes her effort could be the first step in streamlining the complicated and lengthy process required before a Chicago police officer can be fired or even punished for misconduct. Delays frequently occur after COPA has completed its investigation, as the Chicago Police Superintendent reviews its findings and submits them to the Legal Department.

The agency has already begun to demonstrate that it can act quickly and comprehensively, Kersten said, noting that it took COPA just eight months to investigate allegations that the Chicago police sergeant. Michael Vitellaro violated department policy by stranding a 14-year-old boy on a Park Ridge sidewalk as he searched for his son’s stolen bicycle.

Vitellaro, who has been acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the case, remains stripped of his police powers, pending resolution of the disciplinary case he is facing.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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