Officer French Updates, Still Struggling to Get It Right

We are to remember the fallen. We are supposed to show respect to their memory and honor their sacrifice. The memory of slain Chicago Police Officer Ella French is supposed to be protected. The Gold Star Families of the fallen are to be respected and protected. Such is true for many, but in a political environment that facilitated the demonization of the police, far too many have not done so. Officer French was murdered, and her partner Carlos Yanez, Jr. suffered life-altering injuries, on 7 August 2021. In the days after her murder, a small memorial for Officer French, which had been setup in the lobby of the Thompson State of Illinois Building in Chicago, was vandalized. Then in November, Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) issued a flawed investigative finding from a 2019 incident recommending a three-day suspension for slain Officer French. Outraged, twenty Chicago City Council members (six short of a council majority) sent a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot objecting to Andrea Kersten continuing to serve as the head of COPA. On the topic of honoring the work, sacrifice, legacy, and memory of Officer French, yesterday, 9 February, was a good-news, bad-news day.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Memorial Honoring Officer French Vandalized

On 20 August 2021, the Twitter page “16th & 17th District Chicago Police Scanner” tweeted a series of posts showing video from an offender in the act of vandalizing a small memorial to Officer French. The memorial was in the lobby of the James R. Thompson Center downtown. The memorial consisted of an three-legged easel, on which a blue flowers-and-ribbons wreath was placed, along with a single red rose. On the wreath was a sign with the words “Back the Blue,” and a photo of a smiling Officer French in her formal police uniform. The offender videotaped an initial attempt to push over the display. When unsuccessful, the video shows the woman’s hand take the photo of Officer French from the display. The woman then crumpled the photo in her right hand as she walked away. The damaged photo was subsequently discarded in a trash can on a Chicago Transit Authority train platform.

CBS Chicago: Police Investigating Vandalism Of Memorial Honoring Slain CPD Officer | Posted 21 Aug 2022.

The video clip was created by the offender herself and was proudly “tweeted out” under Twitter accounts associated with Anna Kochakian, who has now been confirmed as the offender. Once the video began to attract negative attention, Kochakian took the video down and changed her Twitter account name multiple times. Among the account names that were associated with her were: @gardencommunist (the account under which the video was initially posted), @noprisonsnocops, and @ReadMarxSuckers. Tweets from her accounts gathered by “16th & 17th District Chicago Police Scanner” showed her links to communist ideology and the Democratic Socialists of America. Other social media network accounts for Kochakian identified her as a “Remote Community Engagement & Recruitment” employee of the site Clockedin. Following publication of that information, Clockedin terminated their association with Kochakian.

The Good News – Offender Arrested:

As the Thompson Center is a state building, Illinois State Police (ISP) were tasked with the investigation. Given the social media posts, ISP investigators had a strong starting point in gathering the evidence necessary for criminal charges. Their investigation resulted in the formal identification and arrest of the offender. In an ISP press release issued yesterday afternoon they announced the arrest of Kochakian.

Booking Photo from 09 Feb 2022 for Anna Kochakian and image of her restrained by the handcuffs of Officer Carlos Yanez, Jr., the partner of slain Officer Ella French.

As indicated in the press release, ISP investigators secured an arrest warrant for Kochakian (age 26) on the charge of Defacement of a Police Memorial, a Class 4 Felony under state law. The offender was arrested by ISP investigators and Chicago Police Department officers at her Chicago residence at approximately 1000 Hrs on 9 February. In a direct act of symbolism, when arrested Kochakian was restrained with the handcuffs belonging to Officer Carlos Yanez, Jr., the partner of slain Officer Ella French.

The Kersten COPA Nomination

As was widely reported, and criticized, on 10 Novermber 2021, COPA publicly released its findings in a high-profile investigation into a failed search warrant by CPD tactical officers. In February 2019, the officers were looking for a known felon who an informant had reported was unlawfully in possession of a firearm. Unfortunately; the informant had given the officers an incorrect address, and officers raided the wrong home – the residence of Ms. Anjanette Young. Even though then Probationary Police Officer Ella French was cleared by COPA of all allegations of misconduct relating to Ms. Young, COPA recommended a three-day suspension. Even Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot was critical of COPA’s handling of their findings, calling it, “the height of tone deafness.” Interim Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten defended COPA’s actions, and in fact she had led the actual investigation in her prior role as COPA’s Chief of Investigative Operations.

As we covered in our November 2021 post, “Defending Officer Ella French, Spectacle Chicago,” 20 city council members called upon Mayor Lightfoot to hold Ms. Kersten accountable and remove her as the interim head of COPA. Mayor Lightfoot ignored that request and instead proceeded to formally nominate Kersten as the permanent head of the agency. In our January 2022 post, “The Edge of Remarkable, Chicago’s City Council Wants to Say ‘No’,” we provided a detailed analysis from the 21 January 2022 meeting of the city council’s Public Safety Committee. At that session, the mayor’s supporters lacked the votes to pass Kersten’s nomination onto the full council for approval. Rather that let the nomination fail, Alderman Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), the committee chairman, abruptly tabled the nomination over the strenuous objection of Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward). We strongly encourage our readers to go back and view our video clip of the objection from Alderman Sposato.

The Lead Up to the Bad News:

As we have noted previously, whenever the Chicago City Council, or one of it’s committees, stands up to any Chicago mayor it is a rare and even remarkable occurrence. But, in reality, the council is rarely remarkable, and often provides a spectacle. Earlier this week the federal corruption trial of Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward) got underway. Such was likely the reason why Alderman Thompson did not attend yesterday’s Public Safety Committee meeting. At the session, the one matter up for a vote was the nomination of Ms. Kersten to serve as the permanent chief administrator at COPA. Ms. Kersten reiterated her “there was nothing I could do” defense relative to her agency’s recommendation to suspend Officer French. During the session, Alderman Jason Ervin (28th Ward) took the lead for Mayor Lightfoot’s nominee, stating Kersten was given a job to do and did it.

The defense of course is nonsense, as even if Ms. Kersten’s claim that the investigative report could not be revised or redacted was accurate, nothing — nothing — prevented her or her agency from adding a statement to their public release that Officer French had been cleared of all allegations directly relating to Ms. Young. As it was the treatment of Ms. Young that resulted in controversy. During the committee meeting on Wednesday, Alderman Silvana Tabares (23rd Ward) again spoke directly to COPA’s complete lack of concern for Officer French or the French Family. The 23rd Ward alderman stated in part: “Frankly, it demonstrates a lack of judgment and responsibility. And raises some serious questions.”

Alderman Tabares made clear her assessment that given that COPA seeks to hold police officers accountable for their mistakes, the City Council has an obligation to hold COPA accountable for its mistakes as well. Alderman Tabares also made clear her attention to vote against Ms. Kersten’s nomination if the nomination passed out of the committee. Alderman Tabares is not a Public Safety Committee member.

Alderman Sposato voiced his rejections to Ms. Kersten’s “there was nothing I could do” defense, and her nomination to serve as the head of COPA. Alderman Sposato said in part: “There is no doubt in my mind, there could have been an addendum added to this report. And, there is no doubt in my mind that the family could have been given a heads up, without breaking any rules or laws or whatever.”

The Bad News Committee Vote:

Following the comments from Alderman Sposato, Chairman Taliaferro responded to calls from Alderman Raymond Lopez (15th Ward), also a critic of the Kersten nomination, and Alderman Sposato for a vote on the nomination. There were 15 Public Safety Committee members present (on Zoom for the meeting) and voting. The nomination was subsequently passed by the committee on a 9-to-6 vote. Once again, the council (in this case a committee of the council) showed itself not to be remarkable. The nomination now proceeds to the full City Council for a final vote.

Those Public Safety Committee members voting in favor of the Kersten nomination to serve as the COPA Chief Administrator were: Ald. Taliaferro (29th Ward, Committee Chair), Ald. Osterman (48th Ward), Ald. Sawyer (6th Ward), Ald. Ervin (28th Ward), Ald. Reboyras (30th Ward), Ald. Mitts (37th Ward), Ald. Smith (43rd Ward), Ald. Tunney (44th Ward), and Ald. Martin (47th Ward).

The committee members voting against the nomination were: Ald. Lopez (15th Ward), Ald. Sposato (38th Ward), Ald. Nugent (39th Ward), Ald. Napolitano (41st Ward), Ald. Gardiner (45th Ward), and Ald. Reilly (42 Ward).

A Reminder on Why the Nomination Should Be Rejected:

Ms. Kersten’s nomination to serve as the COPA Chief Administrator should be rejected. As Mayor Lightfoot herself noted, Ms. Kersten’s handling of the release of their Young Investigation displayed the “height of tone deafness.” As noted by several alderman, including on Wednesday by Alderman Tabares and Alderman Sposato, before receiving widespread criticism, COPA and Ms. Kersten made no effort to clarify their recommendations. Third, as noted by Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward) in the January committee meeting, COPA has a pattern of recommending excessive penalties for officer infractions, with a bias toward termination. We highly encourage our readers to go back to our November post with this criticism about COPA’s pattern of overreach from Alderman Napolitano.

But, Secure 1776 also returns to a key point specifically relating to the conduct of a still probationary police officer (PPO) in February 2019. Overall, then-PPO French performed her duties very well. In fact, in an incident in which many saw improper treatment of resident, that resident had a positive assessment of Officer French. In fact, upon the murder of Officer French, Ms. Young released a statement of grief and support for Officer French, whom Ms. Young singled out for having treated her with dignity and respect. However, COPA under Ms. Kersten has failed to treat Officer French with dignity and respect – and not just after her death. We strongly encourage our readers to go back and review our detailed analysis of COPA’s faulty findings and recommendations in the Young Investigation relating to Officer French.

Again, Officer Young was cleared of all allegations directly relating to Ms. Young. Secondly, of the two findings that COPA did sustain against Officer French. The first was a lesser equipment issue – failure to timely start her body camera. The second was an alleged documentation error.

We will take the documentation error first. COPA clearly identified a tactical officer as accepting responsibility to have ensured the required report was completed relative to a man stopped briefly behind Ms. Young’s residence. PPO French neither stopped nor directly engaged with this person. The sustained finding against PPO French on this issue is improper. She was not the responsible officer, nor that officer’s partner. Officer French could reasonably have assumed that the responsible officer would in fact subsequently prepare the required stop report.

Regarding the activation of her body worn camera (BWC), Officer French came to be at the location of encounter in the rear of Ms. Young’s residence unexpectedly. The encounter was brief, and Officer French did subsequently activate her BWC when she approached Ms. Young’s actual residence. The delayed activation could have been resolved with a reprimand. Such would have been an appropriate recommendation for any probationary officer with no disciplinary history – who was still alive at the time any approved penalty was to be implemented. In 2019, such minor BWC activations were generally handled by counseling. In short, the suspension recommendation for this minor infraction involving Officer French was unreasonable. A side note bears mention here. In the January Public Safety Committee meeting, Alderman Tabares quetioned Ms. Kersten about her knowledge and experience with with BWC technology. Ms. Kersten revealed under questioning that she has never been trained in the use of a BWC, and has never worn or activated one. It would seem she is not an expert in the actual operation of BWC technology in field situations. She would also seem unqualified to render a penalty assessment for such a violation. This exchange with Alderman Tabares is worth the watch.

There should have never been a suspension recommendation for Officer French’s actions in February 2019 near the Young residence. Such would be true even if Officer French had not been murdered in the line of duty. Given that Officer French was killed in service to the people of Chicago, to have an official agency of that city’s government so visibly disregard her service is unconscionable. As Ms. Kersten oversaw the flawed investigation and its improperly handled public release, she is disqualified to continue to serve as the head of that agency. The full council should reject her nomination. That would indeed be remarkable.

We are interested in your thoughts, and invite you to comment below.

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