The agency tasked with investigating misconduct by Chicago police officers could close several hundred cases without recommending officers face discipline as part of an effort to clear a massive backlog, Civilian Office of Police Accountability Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten told WTTW News on Wednesday’s “Chicago Tonight.”
That substantial backlog — made up of cases more than 18 months old — is compromising the ability of the agency, known as COPA, to investigate more recent complaints alleging significant misconduct by officers, Kersten said.
“We have to get our house in order,” Kersten said. “These are hard choices.”
The “one-time” effort, set to launch July 17, will review approximately 800 cases that allege misconduct by Chicago police officers, Kersten said.
Complaints that involve shootings, excessive force, sexual misconduct, domestic violence or bias will not be considered for closure, Kersten said. Cases alleging “egregious” misconduct or those involving minors or vulnerable adults will not be closed either, Kersten added.
Cases that could be closed as part of this effort include complaints that officers inadvertently violated department policy, Kersten said, and the officers involved would get additional training in an effort to ensure they do not violate the same rule again.
“We have to be able to right size this caseload,” said Kersten, adding that COPA will publish a written report detailing the cases as well as data about what complaints are resolved.
Kersten said she decided to take action on COPA’s backlog after seeing dozens of recommendations for discipline overturned or significantly reduced by arbitrators, who must be sure that employees are treated fairly during disciplinary actions by ensuring complaints are handled swiftly, typically within 18 months, and that any punishment is in line with consequences faced by other officers with similar allegations.
Probes that take longer than 18 months almost never result in discipline for officers that is upheld after arbitration, Kersten said.
“This is the best path forward,” Kersten said.
A 2021 audit by the city’s inspector general detailed that police officers found to have committed misconduct often see their punishment reduced after arbitration, which is required by the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the unions representing Chicago’s police officers.
That issue was spotlighted by the fact that an arbitrator reduced or eliminated suspensions for 14 of the police officers who lounged, slept and snacked in the burglarized South Side office of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the early morning hours of June 1, 2020, as unrest swept the South and West sides of the city in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
In all, 14 officers served a combined 33 days of suspension — nearly 77% less than the punishment recommended by COPA and police brass. The arbitrator also tossed out a reprimand for another officer, 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 raid of Anjanette Young’s home in February 2019. That probe found evidence that nearly a dozen officers committed nearly 100 acts of misconduct during that incident.
Roberts stepped down in May 2021 after facing blistering criticism from former Mayor Lori Lightfoot for the slow pace of the probe into the botched raid.
The Chicago Police Board voted June 16 to fire Sgt. Alex Wolinski, who led the botched raid. Wolinski could challenge that decision in Cook County court.
Other probes have taken even longer. COPA recommended in April that Officer Sammy Encarnacion, who chased Anthony Alvarez before his partner shot and killed the 22-year-old on March 31, 2021, should be fired for abusing his girlfriend in 2017.
The sluggish pace of the probe into Encarnacion, which determined he violated 17 departmental rules, meant he was still on the force nearly four years after committing misconduct that should have resulted in his termination. In that time, Encarnacion not only chased Alvarez before his partner shot him, but shot at two men outside a Far Northwest Side strip mall 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 triggered by outrage over the 2014 police murder 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 those complaints, Kersten said.
“Completing timely and accurate investigations is the last remaining promise of COPA’s formation,” Kersten said. “We have to be able to right size this case load. True reform sometimes requires reevaluation.”
COPA’s jurisdiction has expanded to include complaints about unlawful searches and seizures since its launch, and now offers mediation and restorative justice to those who file complaints against officers.
Just as COPA emerged from strain posed by the IPRA backlog under Kersten’s leadership, the agency was swamped with nearly 400 complaints of police misconduct during the unrest that swept the city in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
That stretched COPA to the breaking point at a time when the agency was struggling to cope with the shift to remote work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kersten said.
Those challenges prompted Kersten to take a hard look at how to reduce the agency’s backlog by resolving old cases that were unlikely to result in significant 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 disciplined for misconduct. Delays frequently occur after COPA completes its investigations, as the Chicago Police superintendent reviews its findings and submits it to the Law Department.
The agency has already begun to demonstrate that it can act quickly and thoroughly, Kersten said, noting that it took COPA just eight months to probe accusations that Chicago Police Sgt. Michael Vitellaro violated department policy by pinning a 14-year-old boy to a Park Ridge sidewalk while searching for his son’s stolen bicycle.
Vitellaro, who was acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the case, remains stripped of his police powers, pending the resolution of the disciplinary case he is facing.