The Case for Abolishing Chicago COPA

February 28, 2024

Sloppiness and unprofessionalism are characteristics of police oversight agency

When the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) released its long-awaited final report on the Chicago Police Department (CPD) mistakenly executing a search warrant at the Near West Side home of Anjanette Young in February 2021, the oversight agency trumpeted its findings as a “full and detailed analysis of the incident, findings, and discipline recommendations.”

Weighing in on the matter personally, COPA’s then-Interim Chief Administrator, Andrea Kersten, stated:

“We take pride in the thoroughness, objectivity and integrity of our investigation and it is our hope that the release of the Summary Report of Investigation provides further closure to Ms. Young as well as answers to the public regarding our investigative conclusions.”


Shortly thereafter, as she awaited confirmation as Chief Administrator of COPA by the City Council, Ms. Kersten would find herself in a fair amount of trouble.

Though these pages have expressed a deep skepticism of COPA’s mission, the objectivity of its officials, and the qualifications of its employees, it bears repeating COPA is not authorized by state law to conduct investigations bearing upon officer-involved shootings, vehicular collisions, or deaths in police custody. Under Illinois State Law, individuals empowered to conduct formal probes into fatal shootings involving members of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) are limited to personnel certified as “Lead Homicide Investigators.” To attain this professional training certification, one must undergo a series of thorough instruction on procedures surrounding death and murder investigations. Qualified investigators must also be a sworn police officer, licensed to carry a firearm, empowered to make arrests, and employed by a law-enforcement agency commissioned to authorize its employees to possess firearms and make arrests.

Established by virtue of a City Council ordinance, even before the agency began operating in January 2016, COPA faced a torrent of criticism from officers, supporters of CPD, and legal observers. One of the strongest objections is that its investigators are not certified police officers and, therefore, not legally certified as Lead Homicide Investigators.

Although the City of Chicago is fully aware COPA’s existence violates state law and has been notified by an outside law firm retained by Chicago as well as an independent, nationally recognized outside law enforcement consultant COPA’s mere continuance violates established law, the city has gone to great lengths to keep COPA functional and conducting investigations of Chicago police officers. To keep COPA humming along, Chicago has waged a nasty court battle despite city attorneys advising City Hall of the folly of the legal proceedings.

COPA operating outside the dictates of the law is only one example of an endless series of problems the oversight agency has invited to the City of Chicago. Though it is difficult to distinguish which COPA mishap has brought the most discredit upon the agency, the placement of a high-definition, close-up lens to several instances reveals the oversight body has committed numerous terrible errors in judgment or missteps and has disgraced itself often enough that a convincing argument can be made for COPA to be shuttered.

To begin this examination, it is necessary to revisit one of the worst blunders COPA committed, its botched handling of the final report on the errant search warrant executed on Anjeanette Young’s home. The most egregious example of the incompetence of COPA officials, the final report included the recommendation of punishment for Officer Ella French. A first-year officer at the time CPD entered Young’s home, French was seen on police bodycam assisting Ms. Young.

Although French’s role in the episode was incidental, a three-day suspension was recommended for her failure to activate her body-worn camera while present at Young’s home. The recommendation to impose disciplinary action on French occurred even though French had been slain in traffic stop months prior to the November 2021 release of the final summary report. The needless and thoughtless maligning of a murdered peace officer took place while Kersten was under consideration for the position of Chief Administrator of COPA.

As a bitter controversy erupted over the negligent and extraneous language recommending punishment for the late Officer French remaining in COPA’s account of the Young incident, Kersten presented herself to apologize for the slight in front of the Chicago Police Board. A distillation of contrition and political self-preservation, Kersten’s public plea for absolution attempted to shift blame for COPA’s narrative of the incident at Young’s home from blemishing the memory of the slain officer onto a system riddled with faults.

While addressing the Police Board, Kersten claimed no procedure by which COPA’s report could be edited existed under the agency’s guidelines for the crafting and delivery of COPA documents. To be fair, though French’s death presented circumstances with no precedent, Kersten’s reasoning was still altogether outlandish. Though Kersten claimed COPA had no protocols in place to edit French’s name from the Young report, the document made public had been drafted over a two-year period and the final summary version released was a redacted form.

While many government documents for distribution to a broad audience are redacted, it is utterly implausible to believe COPA investigators responsible for completing the Young report were hamstrung by COPA guidelines and unable to edit the slain French’s name from the final report. As inexcusable as it was to allow French’s name and the recommendation she be punished to remain in the summary, there are two other obvious reasons COPA should have taken steps to remove any reference to French in the final report. First, the COPA summary with French’s name included could have been manipulated by defense attorneys representing her murderers to cast doubt on her actions on the evening of her death and her service record. Second, mentioning French served no purpose.

It is also essential to note in Ms. Kersten’s apology for her agency’s callousness was an admission of the need for COPA to discuss openly the how to fully achieve transparency. Kersten added she would welcome a “conversation” over the French debacle to reexamine the office’s procedures to avoid such a lapse from occurring again. Since Kersten's invitation for a “conversation” was submitted, no “conversation” to avoid such appalling errors in the future has taken place.  

If Chicago learned anything from COPA’s final summary report of the search warrant executed on Anjanette Young’s residence, it, at minimum, revealed sloppiness prevails among agency employees. At maximum, it demonstrated common sense and decency lays beyond the grasp of COPA employees.

COPA’s disgraceful tribute to Ella French was far from the last time the agency or its head either discredited or brought shame upon itself. Following the bungled handling of the Young report, COPA’s Chief Administrator — inexplicably and needlessly — inserted herself into the public forum in another delicate matter. On July 6, 2023, Chicago media broke a story alleging a member of CPD attached to the 10th District had in an improper sexual relationship with an underage migrant sheltering at the Ogden station. A grave charge, the allegations of misconduct demanded a thorough investigation.

Yet merely two weeks into COPA’s inquiry, the investigation had stalled. Amid intense press scrutiny, Kersten astonishingly held a press conference on July 18 at which, among numerous whoppers delivered, she stated the “source of the initial allegation was unknown.”

This statement was an unambiguous lie.

In the 11-day period between July 7-18, prior to Kersten holding her press conference, COPA investigators met with several CPD assigned to the 10th District. In two meetings, sources inside the 10th District have confirmed COPA sleuths revealed to CPD interviewees the source of the complaint which brought on the probe was known to the oversight agency.

If we set aside the series of fictions Kersten uttered at her exchange with media, it is vital to spotlight the risks borne in her adventurism: An attorney and former prosecutor who helped develop the agency's arm to investigate sexual assault, sexual abuse, or domestic violence, the Special Victims Unit, for Kersten to brief media in the middle of an ongoing investigation was a violation of every principle of established investigatory practices under state law. Making matters worse, nearly two months following Kersten improperly holding a press briefing, a COPA employee apprised Kiisha Smith, the chair of the Ogden Police District Council, on progress made in the inquiry. Another flagrant contravention of universal investigatory norms, why this was done has yet to be fully explained by either Kersten or COPA.

An inquiry of allegations of sexual abuse, particularly in instances in which police officers are accused is one of the most sensitive cases any investigative body is entrusted to oversee. An investigation of this nature requires seasoned, well-trained investigators who go about their mission in accordance with the protocols implemented by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, pursuing the evidence while maintain the privacy of the victim making the allegation.

Yet the briefing of Keisha Smith, who has no legitimate “need to know” any of the specifics of what was an ongoing legal exploration has never been satisfactorily explained. This, naturally, demands answers, as does the question why Kersten chose to politicize and publicize two critical and sensitive investigations. For a public official, even one in an appointed position, to behave in such a manner in one instance could be dismissed as a momentary lapse of judgment. However, Kersten did as much twice, and in the thick of two prominent cases.  


In the next entry, Contrarian will examine two further cases badly mismanaged by COPA.

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