Chicago has tried police reform before. How it can do better this time.

Videos of two police shootings have roiled Chicago, with many critics pointing to the need to reform one agency, in particular. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Sharon Fairley, newly-appointed leader of the Independent Police Review Authority, speaks during a news conference in front of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Monday.

The pressure on the Chicago Police Department and City Hall was mounting. Two videos of police violence had shocked the city and the demands for reform had cost the city’s police chief his job. The city needed to do something. 

So it created the Independent Police Review Authority to hold police to account. 

That was 2007. Now, eight years later, as two videos of two fatal police shootings have once again created a furor that has cost the police superintendent his job, a wide array of critics are saying IPRA is primarily to blame for the city’s continued problems. 

The organization founded to clean up the police has instead become the opposite – an agency that shields police from legal scrutiny, these critics say. 

On Monday, the state attorney for Cook County criticized IPRA for taking more than seven months to give her evidence she requested for her investigation of the shooting of Ronald Johnson III. The video of his death was released publicly Monday, but Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez decided not to press charges. 

On Tuesday, a coalition of civil rights advocates called for IPRA to be abolished and replaced with “a truly independent oversight authority.”

The story of IPRA is a cautionary tale of how efforts at reform can fail without sustained public attention and political will. IPRA, for example, merely inherited the staff of the ineffective agency it was intended to replace. The head of IPRA resigned Sunday, a day before the United States Department of Justice announced it would investigate the use of force and accountability in Chicago’s police department.  

But for deeper change, more tough decisions will need to be made this time around, observers say, though there is hope that the persistence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a federal investigation could keep the issue in the spotlight. 

“IPRA is a serious problem,” says Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who in 2007 testified at City Hall about the need to create an agency like IPRA. 

“I used to think it was ineffective, but I think that’s really wrong,” he adds. IPRA has instead fulfilled the role of acting “to justify and protect officers from discipline.”

Supporter turned critic

Professor Futterman, who now directs the University of Chicago’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, says he had high hopes that IPRA would be independent and conduct fair and unbiased investigations. Up until that point, the police department’s Office of Professional Standards had investigated police aggression.

But the new authority, he says, “inherited the exact same staff [from OPS] with the same issues of bias that had been whitewashing these complaints all of these years.”

A recent data analysis by The Chicago Tribune found that of the 409 police shootings IPRA has investigated since its formation, two have been found to be unjustified, both involving off-duty officers. More than 70 percent of the shooting victims were African-American and 127 of those shootings were fatal.

Futterman knows first hand the challenges of police accountability in Chicago. After receiving a tip from someone within the police department, he and others made a successful Freedom of Information Act request for the release of a video showing the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald. 

The video contradicted reports by police officers. The black teen, who was carrying a knife, was shot 16 times, many of them in the back after he had already fallen to the ground. One police officer has been charged with first-degree murder, and Police Supt. Gerry McCarthy was forced to resign.

The release of that video, along with the one of Mr. Johnson Monday, has renewed calls for changes in how the police department investigates officers’ use of force. 

City at a crossroads

The new head of IPRA, Sharon Fairley, pledged Monday to restore trust in the agency. 

“The city is at a crossroads today. And there can be no doubt that change is in the air and on the horizon,” she said. “Yet, the mission of IPRA will remain the same: thorough, fair and timely investigation of police officer misconduct. All of that is critical to restoring the trust that is essential to providing the level of public safety that all of our communities deserve.”

The lawyer for Johnson’s family, Michael Oppenheimer, says that process begins with acknowledging that the IPRA’s investigation into the shooting is compromised.

State Attorney Alvarez “relied on the IPRA investigation, when 12 to 14 hours ago the head of IPRA resigned and or was fired because of the shoddy investigations that IPRA does,” Mr. Oppenheimer said in a press conference after the video was released. “This is a joke. It’s the blind leading the blind.”

But Tuesday afternoon, a coalition of community groups and politicians made an official complaint to Department of Justice asking the agency to replace IPRA with a new independent oversight authority. 

“There is a direct correlation between IPRA’s dysfunction outlined in this complaint and the brutality that is and has been endemic in the CPD,” reads the complaint, which is signed by the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus and the Rainbow Push Coalition, among others.

Chicago might look to the Office of the Inspector General at the New York City Police Department as an alternative to IPRA, says criminologist Samuel Walker. Instead of IPRA’s “retail” approach to complaints against officers, the inspector general’s office takes a “wholesale” look at the police department.

“In Chicago, you’re looking at whether the officer did something wrong or not,” says Mr. Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska. “In New York, the auditor is really looking at the organization. They are looking at policies and practices that affect all officers. And you’re looking towards fixing the underlying problem.”

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