Police | Politics

The Origins of IPRA

How Chicago was pressured to establish an independent police review authority

This fall, journalists with the Invisible Institute will publish an interactive online database of all allegations of police misconduct in Chicago between March 2011 and March 2015, as well as partial data from earlier years. These records, obtained by the Invisible Institute through years of Freedom of Information Act litigation, offer an unprecedented view into the City’s system of police accountability. This series, produced in partnership with City Bureau, is meant to provide context for the forthcoming database.

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The series of events that would eventually lead to an overhaul of the bodies that oversee the CPD started on February 21, 2007, when Officer Anthony Abbate, then a 12-year veteran of the force, physically assaulted a bartender named Karolina Obrycka.

Only after Obrycka’s attorneys released security footage of the incident – nearly one month later – was Abbate arrested. Police officials said they had been “unable to locate” him in the intervening weeks, even though they had apprehended Abbate in the confines of his own home. That claim took five years to disprove, when a federal jury found the police guilty of brushing Abbate’s case under the rug.

The Abbate case was not the only one on Chicago’s mind at the time. The city settled another high-profile dispute in December 2006, when it awarded $150,000 to a woman named Diane Bond. Bond had accused five CPD officers abusing both her physically and psychologically in and around her Stateway Gardens apartment.

November of 2007 saw the release of a study led by Craig Futterman, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, which alleged that Obrycka, Bond, and others were the victims of a CPD-wide code of silence.

“The odds are two in a thousand,” the study found, “that a Chicago police officer will receive any meaningful discipline as a result of being charged with abusing a civilian.”

Futterman and his team provided hard evidence that the department’s internal investigations were nearly meaningless. The evidence of cover-ups and inefficiencies within the Office for Professional Standards, the branch of the Chicago Police Department formerly responsible for investigating police misconduct, struck a particularly painful chord. But other broad swaths of the CPD were implicated in the report as well, from administrators down to officers.

The Abbate scandal led to the ouster of Superintendent Philip J. Cline, the CPD’s top administrator, who resigned in April 2007. Headlines concerning police misconduct dominated Chicago media outlets for months following both events, forcing city leaders to act or face the political consequences.

This environment set the foundations of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). That summer, the city council voted to dissolve OPS and establish an independent agency to oversee police investigations, a proposal championed by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The founding of IPRA was set to begin a new era of accountability and discipline with the CPD. Some praised the mayor, while others called the move a transparently political calculation.

To lead the new organization, the mayor tapped Ilana Rosenzweig, an attorney who had kept an eye on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office at the city’s Office of Independent Review. The mayor also brought in a new police chief from outside the department, a former FBI agent named Jody Weis.

Futterman said that at the time, he and his team were encouraged by the decision to establish an independent oversight committee and to bring someone from outside the CPD to lead it, but had reservations about the mayor’s motivations.

“There was a real risk of federal intervention in Chicago,” Futterman said, referring to the period after Cline stepped down, “and one of the ways in which they very adeptly attempted to head that off was to bring in someone from federal law enforcement themselves.”

The key to IPRA was built into its name – it would investigate cases independent of the police and city government officials, and that caseload would not be small.

The agency, as it is currently structured, intakes all claims of misconduct, investigating those that involve “excessive force, domestic violence, coercion through violence, or verbal bias-based abuse.” All other complaints are forwarded to the CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA).

Disciplinary recommendations for officers found guilty of misconduct, if issued at all, range from simple reprimands to suspensions. “Separation,” IPRA’s harshest possible recommendation and one of the many institutional euphemisms the agency employs, is police-speak for being fired.

IPRA then investigates complaints that involve “excessive force, domestic violence, coercion through violence, or verbal bias-based abuse,” its website says, and forwards all other cases to the Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA).

How much attention and money these reform efforts received, however, was ultimately dictated by public outrage. While the scandal initially dominated Chicago headlines, the shock soon waned. As a result, Futterman said, IPRA wasn’t given the funding or the resources it needed to conduct thorough investigations or even find more people capable of carrying them out.

Just months after Rosenzweig’s appointment, IPRA was already facing difficulties. The Tribune reported in December 2007 that the agency, “budgeted for 85 positions … is short 24 people.” Each investigator was taking on thirty cases at a time – triple the number Rosenzweig thought was appropriate.

More important was the perception of critics that nothing had changed. Beyond the acronym swap, some initially saw few differences between OPS and IPRA.

“(Rosenzweig) inherited the exact same staff (from OPS) that was inadequate and had a culture of protecting the police,” Futterman said.

IPRA now has almost a decade of experience under its belt. It has a new leader, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer named Scott Ando. (Rosenzweig abruptly left the agency in 2013 when her husband accepted a job in Singapore.)

But whether it has succeeded in gaining Chicagoans’ trust is unclear. Questions about its efficiency and supposed impartiality remain unanswered, too.

Eight years later, IPRA’s record shows few recommendations for punishments as severe as “separation.” At press time, the latest high-profile case of a police-involved shooting to pass through IPRA’s doors is that of Officer Dante Servin, who fatally shot 22 year-old Rekia Boyd nearly three and a half years ago. Servin shot into a crowd while off duty in Lawndale, claiming that he saw a man in the group produce a gun. Boyd was caught in his line of fire. No weapon was ever recovered.

On September 16, 2015, IPRA recommended to police chief Garry McCarthy that Servin be fired. It was only the second such verdict the agency had ever issued related to a police-involved shooting. (IPRA has also never found an on-duty shooting to be unjustified.) Before Servin’s case was that of Officer Francisco Perez, who fired 16 bullets at a car while off-duty. Perez was fired this past summer not for his actions, according to Supt. McCarthy, but for lying about them during the investigation.

Yet the reality is that, even after this most recent decision, Servin’s career with the CPD is by no means over. In fact, should McCarthy reject IPRA’s recommendation, he would save Servin from the ignominy of facing the Police Board, a panel of nine private citizens who make the final call on allegations of misconduct. IPRA’s recommendations are still no more than that – recommendations. The case against Servin, should McCarthy want it to, would come to a standstill.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “IPRA has also never found an on-duty shooting to be justified.” This article has been updated to reflect that IPRA has never found an on-duty shooting to be unjustified.

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