Don’t give COPA power to change reports, watchdog group says, despite recommended suspension for slain officer Ella French

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability’s decision to order a three-day suspension for slain Chicago police officer Ella French nearly torpedoed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s nomination of Andrea Kersten as head of the police monitoring agency.

To avoid a repeat, Kersten worked with the city’s legal department to craft a legislative solution. There’s only one problem, says the Better Government Association: the Freedom of Information Act exemption is illegal.

This is the BGA’s argument in urging the City Council in the strongest terms to reject the proposed exemption.

The draft order would empower the Chief Administrator of COPA to provide information in reports requested under the Freedom of Information Act if the Chief determines that “removal of the identity of one or several sworn members of the police service personnel is appropriate because the person(s) concerned died with honor in the line of duty and after consideration of both the dignity and respect of such persons and the public interest in information”.

In a statement posted on its website and shared on Twitter, the BGA argues that state FOIA law clearly states that disciplinary records and investigative records are public records and cannot be redacted or revised after the fact. , nor can the local ordinance override the state provisions. do this.”

“The discretionary power of an appointed administrator to retroactively alter public records in any way is a clear danger to transparency, accountability and open government,” the BGA says.

“Regardless of the circumstances of an individual’s death, the record of his or her work as a public servant is of public and historical interest. After-the-fact revisions to public records compromise their reliability and accuracy as a record of the time they were generated.

The BGA has urged members of the Public Safety Committee and the full City Council to ‘oppose any order granting city officials discretion to alter public records’ on the grounds that it ‘invites to an inevitable legal challenge, including “precedents created by the city’s own legal actions.”

It also “exposes individual officers who attempt to comply with the law to the risk of criminal prosecution, attacks the Freedom of Information Act which is the foundation of open government in our state, and sets a dangerous precedent by allowing to unelected directors, no matter how well intentioned. theory, to modify official documents,” the BGA says.

A screenshot from body camera video of a 2019 police raid on the home of social worker Anjanette Young. The police got the wrong address. COPA’s report on the incident lists recommended discipline for the officers involved, including Ella French, who was later killed in the line of duty.
CBS 2 Chicago

At a committee meeting last week, where his appointment was confirmed 9-6, Kersten argued that the proposed freedom of information exemption was crafted in response to an outcry from members of the Advice after the suspension recommendation for French was revealed.

The suspension stems from French failing to activate her body-worn camera and complete the proper paperwork after showing up at the home of social worker Anjanette Young on the night in 2019 when Chicago police officers issued a warrant search of the wrong home.

“You don’t just want explanations or excuses. You want solutions. You want a way forward so that something like this never happens again. … You were asking me very directly, ‘What are you going to do to solve this problem?’ It’s my best effort to really solve the very specific problem that got us to this moment,” Kersten told a council committee last week.

“It would give the Chief Administrator a legal option that I did not have available to me in November when this report was released.”

The suspension was recommended even though French was praised by Young and by COPA for being one of the few officers who “took positive steps to protect Ms. Young’s dignity” by allowing her to dress.

Kersten repeatedly stressed that the suspension recommendation was “not posthumous.” It was made on April 27, 2021 – more than three months before French, 29, was shot and killed and his partner, Carlos Yanez Jr., was seriously injured after stopping an SUV with expired plates..

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