CHICAGO — Alderpeople blocked Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s nominee to lead the Civilian Office of Police Accountability Friday over the discipline the agency recommended for slain officer Ella French in a report released after her death.
Andrea Kersten’s nomination to lead the police oversight agency first came under scrutiny after the agency’s report on its investigation into the wrongful raid of Anjanette Young’s home recommended a three-day suspension for French for failing to activate her body-worn camera after she arrived at the scene. Kersten currently serves as the chief administrator of the agency.
The report was finalized in April — before French was killed — but only publicly released in November, after Police Supt. David Brown had time to review the report and COPA met with Anjanette Young and her attorney.
Kersten has apologized for not communicating with French’s family before the report was released, but argues the agency was legally bound to include her name in the report.
When it became clear that apology and legal reasoning didn’t satisfy members of the Committee on Public Safety, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police sergeant who chairs the committee, announced he was holding the nomination, preventing a vote that could have rejected the nomination outright.
That move angered Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), who opposes Kersten’s nomination and believed he had the votes to stop it.
“We have people that make sacrifices to be here, we have people that listened to everything, now after an hour and 45 minutes, now we’re going to hold this because [the committee] don’t have the votes,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m pissed off, this wrong.”
When opposition to her nomination arose in November, Kersten offered a “sincere and heartfelt” apology to French’s family at a meeting of the Chicago Police Board. On Friday, Kersten apologized again, while arguing the agency was prevented by law from not including French’s name in the report.
“I have profound 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,” Kersten said Friday. “There is more that COPA could have done to message publicly the timeline, and the circumstances surrounding officer French’s inclusion in our report.”
The report was finalized in April, months before French was killed. It could not be released publicly until after Police Supt. David Brown reviewed the punishments recommended by the agency, charges against the officers were filed with the Chicago Police Board, and COPA met with Young and her attorney.
“COPA did not, nor ever would, make a posthumous disciplinary recommendation against any officer, including officer Ella French,” Kersten said.
Still, several alderpeople on the committee announced they would vote down Kersten’s nomination, including Sposato, Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd) and Anthony Napolitano (41st). Others grilled Kersten over the report, but did not tip their hand on their vote.
Tabares argued Kersten “didn’t look at any potential options” to prepare French’s family for the “debacle, knowing this report was on the horizon.”
Asked by Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) if she would release the report today in the same manner, Kersten responded she would “unless the rules are going to be somehow changed or altered, I believe the report had to be released in the manner that it was.”
The missed opportunity, Kersten said, was not showing “compassionate transparency,” and working to prepare French’s family for the release of the report.
“That’s just the truth, that this work hurts people who are already grieving, that was never our intention and something that we could have and should have worked harder to prevent their lack of information surrounding this process,” she said.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who chairs the Black Caucus, came to Kersten’s defense, saying City Council was flirting with a “slippery slope” to demand COPA redact information or names in its reports.
“We have asked his body to bring the facts out, let’s not forget that, even though sometimes the facts may not necessarily show certain individuals in the best light, we have to seek the truth out in these particular instances,” he said.
Sposato conceded opposing Kersten’s nomination may be personal to him, disclosing that Kersten previously reported him to the Board of Ethics following a contentious interaction.
“I tried to contact her about something numerous times without a callback, was very frustrated about it [and] at a budget hearing when I finally knew who she was … I admit I somewhat aggressively came up to her and somewhat scolded her, maybe raised my voice and, you know, I wasn’t my normal, nice, friendly Nick Sposato that I usually am,” he said.
Sposato said Kersten told him he was being inappropriate, “which maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t,” before reporting him to the Board of Ethics.
“I don’t want to see any one of you have to call COPA and be reported to the [inspector general] or the Board of Ethics for improper conduct,” he said.
After the meeting, the Mayor’s Office held firm on Kersten’s appointment, saying “we will get this done.”
“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,” said spokesman Alex Murphy. “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.”
Friday’s rejection could prevent Lightfoot from nominating her own pick for the COPA position. While the new civilian-led oversight commission of the Police Department has the responsibility to nominate the COPA leader, but the full commission will not be online until 2023, an interim commission will be in place this year. The Rules Committee is now accepting applications for the interim commission through Feb. 4. The committee will narrow the list down to 14 nominees to be sent to Lightfoot, who will choose seven to serve on the interim commission.