Former COPA Chief Sharon Fairley Runs For Illinois Attorney General

Since the announcement of Lisa Madigan not seeking another term as Illinois Attorney General, the pool of candidates has stepped forward for the seat.

Four candidates have announced their bid—Republican endorsed Ericka Harold, Democratic State Senator Kwame Raoul, ex-CPS board member Jesse Ruiz and former COPA Chief Sharon Fairley.

Sharon Fairley is a very familiar face in the criminal justice system as a former federal prosecutor and as an Assistant Attorney General for nine years working under the leadership of both U.S. General Attorney Eric Holder and thereafter, Loretta Lynch.  She joined City of Chicago working in the Office of the Inspector General as First Deputy Inspector General and General Counsel.

But her most challenging job would come after the court ordered release of the Laquan McDonald police dashcam, which showed the 17-year-old shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer. In December 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Fairley as the Chief Administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which would thrust her in the spotlight –leading the charge for police accountability and reform.  

A New Chapter In Police Accountability

Working with several community organizations and addressing the problems that have embedded a long history of mistrust between the Chicago Police Department and communities of color—the City Council established an ordinance to form a new agency: Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). As the Chief Administrator of COPA, Fairley helped launch the agency staffed with more than 120 employees this September.

A month later, she resigned from her position at COPA under the speculation of making a bid for Attorney General.

She explained, “The first thing to be clear about is that those were two completely separate decisions. Both were really very difficult, as you might imagine. I’m so proud of the work that has went into creating COPA. I cannot be more grateful for having had the opportunity to be able to create the division for that organization, to have the resources to actually make that vision come to life. It was a tremendous amount of work, but it was also very exciting. I believe the agency is poised to do great work,” said Fairley.

Under the agency, she believes in order to build public trust there has to be transparency of the police department across the board.

“COPA is only one part of the system. Police accountability is much more than the oversight agency. Police accountability must be backed into the whole process to how officers are recruited, to how they are trained, to policies that govern how they interact with communities, to how well they’re supervised, to how they are evaluated,” she said. “Then you get to the point to how are they disciplined and that’s where COPA plays a part.”

“This is an organization [CPD] of 12,000 individuals. They’re not all bad. But there is a culture that has developed over time and it’s not possible to change a culture of an organization that large overnight. What do you do in the interim? You have to be consistent in enforcing the rules. That’s what we try, that’s what I tried to do. Where there was evidence of people being untruthful, that code of silence, we would call it out and enforce the rules about it. That’s what is really important.”

Finding Her Way

A native of Silver Springs, Md., Fairley grew up with a love for mathematics. Both parents were educators—her mom worked as a school administrator in Montgomery County and her father worked at the Department of Health and Education. He was part of the team who traveled around the country helping to integrate schools.  But it was from her grandmother, Fairley credits her analytical skills.

“My father’s mother, my grandmother, graduated from Oberlin College in 1923 with a degree in statistics. Imagine being an African-American woman in 1923, studying mathematical discipline. She was a trailblazer and she was amazing.”

Fairley attended Princeton University where she majored in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.  She recalls her experience attending the Ivy League school. “I had a great experience while I was there; I received an academic scholarship from General Motors in Dayton, Ohio, while I was in college. At the same time, I was a creative person. I love to sing,” Fairley said.

“When I was in college, I did a lot of musical theater. There’s a theater at Princeton called McCarthy Theatre that was my home away from home. I spent a lot of time there.” Fueling her love for the great American musicals, it was a healthy way of creatively expressing herself aside from her engineering classes.

After earning her B.A. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton, she obtained her M.B.A. degree in Marketing from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. 

She immediately moved to New York City where she spent 19 years working in advertising and marketing. As a senior executive, she was doing well in her professional career but felt there was more she could do—to give back. After repeatedly contemplating about law school, she relocated to Chicago and enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School, earning her J.D. in 2006.

“When I came out of law school, Lisa Madigan gave me my first job. I was an assistant Attorney General working in criminal appeals at the Attorney General office. It was a wonderful experience. That’s how I became a lawyer working in that office. I learned how to write, I learned how to analyze cases. I appreciate her giving me that opportunity.”

It was a calling she felt both intrigued and inspired by, being a part of the process and working inside the system. A year later Fairley joined the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois.

“Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of discretion at what they do. I really felt it was important to work for justice by being inside the system. I wanted to be the one who was exercising that judgement. I wanted to be the one who’s deciding to charge and with what,” she said. “I wanted to make the recommendations about sentencing because I knew that I could have influence over the process.”

Fighting Trump Policies

In this new chapter of her life, she believes there is more work for her to accomplish as an officer of the court because of what is at stake.

“I believe that Lisa has done a tremendous job. She has gained the trust of the community that she serves and rightly so. We are in a very different place than when she took over the office. Today, these positions [State’s Attorney General] are so incredibly important because they do serve as the first line of defense against the aggressive and regressive policies of the Trump administration.”

The mother of two adults, Fairley has worked on cases that have involved offenders preying on the vulnerabilities of seniors in mortgage fraud along with narcotics and firearms. 

What can we expect her to bring to the office of Attorney General if she is elected?

“We need somebody in that role who can stand firm against those things. They always say, ‘the best defense is a good offense’ so how can you use the power of the law to actually push back and protect the citizens of Illinois from these things. Many of these things are really personal to me.”

Follow Mary L. Datcher on Twitter 

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