This Is Chicago, and Independence Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Ilana Rosenzweig didn’t flinch. It was either a sure sign that she’s open to criticism and committed to her job of investigating police misconduct—or confirmation that she doesn’t give a shit because she does Mayor Daley’s bidding and protects bad cops.

Rosenzweig, the chief administrator of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, had been trying to make the first point, but she didn’t seem to be persuading all of the two dozen people who’d gathered in the Uptown library to hear her talk Tuesday evening.

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“Very few people in Chicago say no to Daley,” a bespectacled, white-haired man in the audience reminded her. “Daley appointed police superintendent Weis. He appointed you, and he appointed the members of the police board. So why should anyone believe this process is independent? This is Chicago!”

It’s a question that’s been asked for decades of the officials charged with rooting out police misconduct.

Before 2007 complaints about Chicago police were handled by the department itself, most recently by a group of civilian investigators known as the Office of Professional Standards, which fell under the authority of the police superintendent. But OPS was widely viewed as a mechanism for protecting troubled officers, as Rosenzweig acknowledges. “The superintendent could potentially tell them what to investigate or how, and if the superintendent changed the result of an investigation no one knew,” she said Tuesday.

Three years ago, after a string of scandals and expensive lawsuits involving the police, Daley got the City Council to pass a law creating a new investigative office outside the department. It was given the impressive name of the Independent Police Review Authority.

Of course, the law also gave the mayor the right to pick IPRA’s leader. In the summer of 2007 he appointed Rosenzweig, who’d investigated police misconduct cases for Los Angeles County, to a four-year term.

She’s had a lot of work to do. In 2009, IPRA received 10,074 complaints about Chicago cops. By law the office must look into all of them involving allegations of domestic violence, excessive force, coercion, or verbal abuse; the others are forwarded to the department’s own disciplinary office, the Internal Affairs Division. Last year that left IPRA with 2,841 new cases. More than 1,500 cases from 2007 and 2008 were still open when 2009 began, so even after IPRA investigators closed 2,578, they had 1,949 cases open at the outset of 2010—with more coming their way every week.

Forty percent of the cases take longer than six months to investigate, according to IPRA officials.

Besides overseeing the office, Rosenzweig has had to dodge political missiles. Aldermen have wondered aloud why she’s trying to undermine law and order; activists have said IPRA is as ineffective at stemming police abuse as OPS was.

To her credit, Rosenzweig has tried to invite others into the discussion. Last year she held meetings on the south and west sides to invite the public to talk about IPRA’s work, and Tuesday evening she and her staff held a two-hour session in Uptown. “I think it’s really vital to the city of Chicago that we have an ongoing dialogue about the Independent Police Review Authority and what it does and how it can be improved,” she said.

Rosenzweig declined to answer several questions about particular officers who’d been accused of misconduct, saying she didn’t want to talk about individual cases. But she took other gripes head on.

Activist and frequent police critic Andy Thayer told her it was his understanding that IPRA finds officers guilty of misconduct at the same low rates that OPS did—about 2 percent of the cases it investigates. “I don’t see how IPRA has changed things besides changing the acronym,” he said.

Rosenzweig said it’s not that simple. “Rates are difficult—numbers are difficult.”

She said that under state law and the terms of the city’s police contract, IPRA can’t sustain any allegation against an officer unless a witness to the incident signs a sworn statement. “The ones that end up as no affidavit—when we’ve reached out to the person as much as we can but no one wants to sign an affidavit—we cannot sustain those,” she said. “You’ve got to take those out, and then we get to 5 percent. Is 5 percent enough? Not enough? Eight percent has been thrown around, but I’ve talked to my colleagues nationwide and they’re like, ‘Eight percent is crazy’—at least without pre-screening the complaints. Remember, we don’t pre-screen. The numbers are—I think they’re tricky.”

IPRA conducts thorough investigations into all the complaints that fall under its jurisdiction, she said. “What has changed? We’re interviewing all the witnesses. We’re not relying on a detective’s interview if we can get the witness to talk to us ourselves. In officer-involved shootings we’re interviewing the officers and not just relying on the roundtable statements"—collected by other police officers.

Rosenzweig argued that it’s far easier to see how misconduct investigations are conducted now than when OPS handled them. “In the past, to be honest, we don’t actually know what was happening with the investigations”—the results of OPS investigations and any disciplinary recommendations were kept under wraps; only the superintendent’s final decisions were made public. Now, she said, IPRA publicly releases its conclusions and recommendations. "There's at least transparency," she said. “You can see what we’ve found and then you can agree or disagree with us.”

But the most pointed question posed to her was the one about whether a Daley appointee could ever be independent. Rosenzweig seemed to expect it.

For starters, she said, Daley had never spoken to her about a particular case.

“Two, I was appointed to a four-year term and I can only be removed for cause,” she said. “Yes, this is Chicago. If the mayor wants me gone, he can take it to the City Council and make it happen." But she insisted she doesn't report to Daley day to day.

Finally, she said, what interest would she have in not being fair and thorough? “This is my career. I was at a big law firm, but I realized I didn’t want to do that kind of work. I want to be here, doing this work. I think this is important.”

Everyone agreed with that part, at least.

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