Chicago police watchdog agency faces criticism, scrutiny

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2015 2:14 AM

CHICAGO (AP) — A Justice Department probe of the Chicago Police Department will find the force overseen by a nominally independent agency that was set up eight years ago to investigate police brutality, but which has been criticized as an overburdened and toothless watchdog.

Chicago's Independent Police Review Authority is a civilian agency that investigates possible police misconduct, including the shootings of citizens by officers. But of 409 shootings involving police since September 2007, the agency found only two with credible allegations against an officer, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing the agency's own data.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel this week replaced the board's leader and named Sharon Fairley, a former assistant U.S. attorney, to take over the agency to help "reinvigorate an essential oversight body." That comes nearly two weeks after the release of a video showing a white Chicago police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times, and as the federal government opened an investigation into the Police Department.

Here are key details about the Independent Police Review Authority.

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AUTHORITY

In 2007, the City Council did away with an internal Chicago Police Department oversight office, turning it into a separate city department with subpoena power and a chief administrator reporting directly to the mayor.

IPRA's investigations are rare among civilian oversight agencies in the United States. "Even in cities that have some type of still-rare civilian review, most have their police departments conduct the entire investigation and then allow a civilian oversight board to review," the mayor's office said Sunday.

But IPRA can only make recommendations for officer discipline, with the final determination made by the police superintendent of the police board.

IPRA also suspends its investigations when there is a criminal investigation. In the case of Officer Jason Van Dyke, who's been charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, IPRA cannot interview other officers involved while criminal matters are pending.

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BACKLOG OF CASES

On Monday, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez criticized IPRA for its slow pace in interviewing witnesses in the case of an officer who fatally shot 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III as he ran away. "It took them eight months to find witnesses to interview," Alvarez said, even as she explained that her decision not to charge the officer involved was based on IPRA's investigation.

IPRA's backlog of 3-year-old and older cases — as many as 325 in 2010 — was reduced to 32 by December 31, 2014, and now stands at 26, according to the mayor's office.

The average investigator caseload has dropped from approximately 35 in 2013 and early 2014 to 10 by the end of 2014 and 8 as of Sept. 1 of this year, the mayor's office said.

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NEW LEADERSHIP

On Monday, Emanuel talked up Fairley's qualifications and said she would help "to reinvigorate an essential oversight body that we as a city rely on as it relates to oversight and accountability in the police department."

He noted Fairley's education, including a degree from Princeton University, and work in the private sector.

"When it comes to IPRA and the decisions, we need a body that not only can make those decisions (and) do it in a way that when they make a decision, that even when the public disagrees with it, they don't question the integrity of the work that IPRA is doing."