By Dan Hinkel and Jodi S. Cohen
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, under fire for months over how the city investigates excessive force allegations against Chicago police, plans to propose abolishing the city's beleaguered Independent Police Review Authority.
The city would replace the agency -- known for sluggish investigations that rarely led to discipline -- with a civilian agency "that has more independence and more resources to do its work," Emanuel wrote in an essay released Friday. The essay offered few specifics about the new agency, though the mayor wrote that the details will be worked out in the coming weeks and presented at a City Council meeting June 22.
"...It is clear that a totally new agency is required to rebuild trust in investigations of officer-involved shootings and the most serious allegations of police misconduct," the column says.
Emanuel's proposal comes as he continues to navigate the political controversy that erupted late last year when the city released video of a white police officer shooting African-American teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. After the video's release, Emanuel appointed a task force on policing that last month issued recommendations for sweeping reform in the Police Department and its oversight systems.
The changes Emanuel has made and announced have come against the backdrop of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation aimed at determining whether police have systematically violated residents' rights. That inquiry could result in court-enforced changes to policing in the city.
Abolishing IPRA -- created in 2007 to replace the widely criticized Office of Professional Standards -- was one recommendation of Emanuel's Police Accountability Task Force, which accused the agency of being opaque, inefficient, ineffective at investigating alleged police misconduct and, ultimately, "beyond repair."
Emanuel also said in his opinion piece that he would embrace two other panel recommendations by appointing an inspector general specifically to monitor policing and creating a Community Safety Oversight Board designed to give residents a role in overseeing law enforcement.
Emanuel has enacted other changes that are less involved than scrapping a city agency, ranging from a vow to hold more meetings in minority communities to expanded training.
The panel's recommendation for replacing IPRA -- which has about 90 employees -- called for a new Civilian Police Investigative Agency with broader investigative powers. The panel suggested that the agency's head would be selected by the Community Safety Oversight Board, and the group recommended that the agency's budget be tied to the Police Department's.
Lori Lightfoot, who chaired the task force and heads the Chicago Police Board, said the mayor's proposal "feels like an important step" but cautioned that it lacks important details.
"The devil will be in the details," she said. "How it will be different (from IPRA) is a fundamentally important question."
The Tribune sought details from City Hall, but none were provided. Dean Angelo, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, couldn't be reached for comment.
On Saturday, Emanuel talked briefly about scrapping IPRA and the goals of a new civilian agency -- but only in broad brush strokes.
"IPRA's work is important. An independent review of actions. But IPRA itself has lost credibility with the public, so while the work is important, we need to have a new organization with a new endeavor to do that," Emanuel told reporters at an unrelated event at Simeon Career Academy on the South Side. He later added: "We're gonna have better oversight, better accountability, and build this level of trust, rather than the distrust that exists. I think that's gonna be an important process."
Police Supt. Eddie Johnson also attended the event at the high school -- an annual block club convention hosted by the Chicago Police Department's Gresham District aimed at building police-community relations. He didn't comment on the mayor's plan to replace IPRA.
IPRA Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley -- a former federal prosecutor who took over the agency late last year as the controversy over the shooting of the 17-year-old McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke deepened -- said in a statement that the mayor's proposals represented an "important and necessary first step toward true reform."
"We know that in order for police accountability to be truly effective it has to have the support and trust of the community," Fairley said in the statement. "I believe this commitment will start the process of building a system that will engender that trust. I look forward to working with the community, the aldermen and the mayor's office to bring about the changes the citizens of Chicago expect and deserve."
Since IPRA's creation, it has gained a reputation for taking years to investigate cases and consistently clearing officers. The agency's many critics have said investigators are overmatched by complicated cases, burdened by heavy workloads and hamstrung by union rules and state laws designed to protect officers. As of late last year, the agency had investigated more than 400 shootings by police, and had ruled the shootings justified in all but two cases. Both involved off-duty officers.
Among civil attorneys who frequently sue the Police Department over alleged wrongdoing -- and often win large verdicts and settlements -- IPRA has been widely viewed as irrelevant.
"IPRA was broken," said attorney Jon Loevy. "It did not perform its mission but, you know, the real question is if they're just changing the letters like last time or they're making genuine institutional reforms."
As the city moves to replace the agency, Lightfoot urged City Council members to ask tough questions before voting on a new ordinance. She said the public needs to be confident that a new agency is "completely independent" from the Police Department. Under the current system, IPRA relies on the work of Police Department evidence technicians and is dependent on its computer systems.
Lightfoot praised the idea of adding an inspector general to oversee the Police Department and investigative agency.
"Right now nobody has responsibility for doing detailed oversight of the law enforcement infrastructure of the city," she said.
Chicago Tribune reporter Marwa Eltagouri contributed.
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