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Lightfoot's Nomination Of New COPA Chief Stalls Amid Protest From Aldermen Angered By Report Recommending Discipline For Slain Officer Ella French

by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Mayor Lori Lightfoot's nomination to have the interim chief of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) become the police watchdog agency's permanent leader stalled on Friday, amid opposition from aldermen infuriated by a COPA disciplinary recommendation for slain Police Officer Ella French.

The City Council Public Safety Committee was set to vote Friday afternoon on Lightfoot's nomination of interim COPA chief administrator Andrea Kersten for the permanent job, but committee chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) held the nomination in committee after more than an hour of debate, when several aldermen voiced strong opposition.

The decision likely avoided having Kersten's nomination voted down, and embarrassing the mayor, as Taliaferro almost certainly would have moved forward with a confirmation vote if Lightfoot's allies had the votes to push it through.

The move to put off the vote angered Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) who has been one of the aldermen leading the charge to vote down Kersten's nomination, saying the committee should have voted on Friday one way or another.

"Now we know what's going on. Now we don't have the votes, and this is what we're going to try to do? This is wrong, chairman. I'm very disappointed in the whole process here," he said. "I'm sorry, I'm pissed off. This is wrong."

Lightfoot nominated Kersten for the COPA post in November, angering many aldermen who opposed her appointment over COPA's recommendation that French be suspended for three days for her role in the botched raid of Anjanette Young's home in 2019.

That recommendation was made last April, months before French was shot and killed in the line of duty, and her partner, Officer Carlos Yanez Jr., was critically wounded after they made a traffic stop in Englewood. But the report recommending disciplinary action for French was not made public until three months after her death.

Before nominating Kersten as COPA's permanent chief, Lightfoot herself had criticized Kersten's handling of the report recommending French be disciplined, calling it the report the "height of tone-deafness," but has since stood by her pick, even despite a letter from 20 aldermen opposing Kersten's appointment.

Kersten has stressed that the recommendation to suspend French for failing to activate her body camera during the raid of Young's home was not made posthumously, as some have falsely claimed, but has apologized for not doing more to inform French's family of the recommendation before it was made public.

"As I have said publicly and privately, and will say again, there is truly no grater act of service than laying down one's life for the city they serve, as Officer Ella French did. She is to be honored and remembered as a hero," Kersten said. "I have profound regret and sadness that the work of our agency has in any way hurt the French family and those who mourn her. And I have and will continue to work steadfastly to ensure that a situation such as this never happens again. There is more that COPA could have done to message publicly the timeline and circumstances surrounding Officer French's inclusion in our report."

Kersten said COPA was not authorized to redact or amend the report on the Anjanette Young raid after French's death, and said that full transparency is "vital to public trust."

"However, the circumstances of this case have clearly indicated the need for further discussion and clarification around how our city wants transparency to function. I would welcome a conversation to examine a process for ensuring that a situation like this never happens again," she said.

Kersten originally apologized at a Police Board meeting in November for not doing more to explain the circumstances surrounding its disciplinary recommendation for French when the COPA report was released.

On Friday, she said COPA "could have and should have worked harder" to provide more information to French's family before the report was released to avoid causing them any additional pain in the wake of French's death.

Kersten said, in hindsight, COPA should have allowed French's family the chance to review COPA's report and findings before they were made public, just as it typically does for victims of police misconduct when such investigations are completed. She promised not to make that mistake again.

"This, to me, is about delivering transparency with greater empathy to all police officers, even when it's an officer who is very much still on the job, and has to move forward after an incident that becomes the subject of headlines," Kersten said.

Kersten's apologies clearly were not enough to appease many of the aldermen who opposed her nomination.

Sposato, who said he has consistently supported Lightfoot's nominees to run various city departments and agencies in the past, said "I take no joy in speaking out against a mayoral appointment."

"This is by no means an attack on the mayor. I've been very supportive of the mayor from day one. I'd like to think I'm one of her biggest supporters, but this is not a … nomination I can support," he said.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago police officer, said he strongly opposed Kersten's nomination, because he believes COPA has been overly punitive of police officers under her watch.

"I believe that Ms. Kersten has more of a push-to-terminate philosophy than a progressive punishment philosophy," he said.

Sposato and Napolitano also recommended, rather than allowing the mayor to appoint the new full-time head of COPA, the City Council wait until the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, a newly created civilian board tasked with overseeing CPD, is in place later this year to hire a new COPA administrator. The new civilian oversight board is authorized to hire the head of COPA, subject to City Council approval.

While several aldermen grilled Kersten about what steps she tried to try to amend the Anjanette Young report after French was killed in the line of duty, Ald. Jason Ervin (29th) warned that allowing COPA to amend its reports in unusual circumstances like that would set a dangerous precedent.

Ervin said COPA needs to maintain objectivity when conducting investigations and producing reports, and aldermen need to be cautious about allowing COPA to amend or redact reports after an investigation has been completed.

"I think that if we start giving people the ability to pick and choose what to include based on circumstances may lead us down a slippery slope. I do understand, though, that we do not want to tarnish the work and memory of Officer French, even though the timing in all of these things are very unfortunate in this case," Ervin said. "You've got to understand that our city has a history of not doing the right thing, and attempting to sweep things under the rug, and I think that we need to look at it from the totality of the circumstances."

Ervin said it's COPA's job to get to the facts whenever it launches an investigation into claims of police conduct, and a duty to report its findings and recommendations for disciplinary action.

"We have asked this body to bring the facts out, and lets not forget that, even though sometimes the facts may not necessarily be showing certain individuals in the best light, we have to seek the truth out in these particular instances," he said. "We asked the COPA to do a job, COPA did a job, and we just have to figure out how we're going to handle the facts of a particular case; but we can't start telling them not to include – include or exclude – certain things because of how we feel, or how it may make someone look."

With Kersten's nomination on hold for now, it's unclear if or when the Public Safety Committee might schedule a vote.

In a statement, Lightfoot's office said she remains confident Kersten's appointment will be confirmed:

"Unfortunately not all City Council members were available for today's vote. The Mayor looks forward to getting this critically important position filled with the most qualified candidate, Andrea Kersten. Mayor Lightfoot maintains the utmost confidence in Andrea Kersten's ability to oversee COPA's critically important work which is civilian oversight and accountability of CPD, and looks forward to her forthcoming approval and appointment. We will get this done."

 

 

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