Ever since the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting was released to the public in late November, Chicagoans have protested in the streets to demand the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor, meanwhile — whose office knew about the damning video but failed to act — has scrambled to save his own skin by announcing sweeping police reforms.
Emanuel has apologized for decades of police abuse by the Chicago Police Department (CPD), fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and established a new task force to monitor CPD activity. He also replaced Chief Administrator Scott Ando of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which is tasked with administrative investigations into officer misconduct.
But with heightened scrutiny surrounding law enforcement and Chicago’s top leadership, residents are demanding a closer look at that independent review agency, which has conspired with cops for years and ultimately served to obstruct justice. Here’s a look at what the IPRA really does, which is a far cry from holding police accountable:
Conducts shady investigations
IPRA officials are supposed to investigate shootings, canvas the scene, collect evidence to build a case, and determine a course of disciplinary action for officer misconduct. But that rarely happens. IPRA has investigated 409 police shootings since 2007, and only two were considered unjustified.
In reality, there is a no transparency about the specific steps IPRA takes during investigations, as its internal policies are kept from the public. According to Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, the agency will say that it’s launched a full-scale probe, go radio silent for years, and eventually conclude the shooting was justified. The entire process is shrouded in mystery.
Complies with the CPD’s demands
Theoretically, IPRA is an independent body. In practice, though, IPRA acts in collusion with the police and concedes the power it does have.
Before it conducts interviews, IPRA waits for police to finish their own probes of civilian witnesses and responding officers who were present at the shooting. By the time police give IPRA permission to interview witnesses, some of them have already left. Some have been taken away by police and others are simply afraid to speak up after being interrogated by officers and prosecutors.
After IPRA investigators file an official report of their findings, the chief administrator determines if the Cook County State’s Attorney should pursue a criminal case. But that rarely happens. Scott Ando, for instance, was a former member of the Drug Enforcement Administration — so he had a close relationship to officers and was less inclined to discipline them.
Doesn’t thoroughly probe the officer in question
IPRA has to be conscientious of officers’ constitutional rights and the concurrent criminal investigation. Police unions are heavily involved in the investigations, negotiating on behalf of the officers in question, and contractual obligations require IPRA to wait at least 24 hours after a shooting to speak with cops. Under Ando, that period of time was unofficially extended as a “professional courtesy.” And information learned during an interview cannot legally be used for a criminal investigation against the officer.
According to Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley, who stepped into the role last week, it is extremely difficult to interview an officer under these circumstances, so IPRA doesn’t even bother to try. “To preserve the integrity of a criminal investigation, we will avoid that problem by not pursuing certain interviews,” she said during the city council hearing.
Punishes IPRA investigators instead of cops
If IPRA determines that an officer committed a form of misconduct, the Chief Administrator recommends disciplinary action to the CPD superintendent. IPRA ignores prior complaints about an officer when making those recommendations. It is actually up to the superintendent to sign off on the proposal or come up with lesser penalties.
Hypothetically, the chief administrator can push back on the superintendent’s decision. But well-intentioned IPRA investigators are actually more likely to be disciplined than the officers they’re supposed to hold accountable. People who work for IPRA are pressured to keep quiet about their findings.
Former IPRA investigator Lorenzo Davis alleges he was fired by Ando earlier this year for refusing to reverse his charge that officers were unjustified in fatally shooting three suspects — including McDonald. Another investigator says he was physically assaulted by officers once they discovered he worked for IPRA. He was slammed so hard to the ground that he defecated on himself. Then he was arrested and thrown behind bars, where he sat in his own waste overnight.