Sharon Fairley ’82 has been the Chief of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority since 2015. She held various positions in marketing management, marketing consulting, and advertising management before becoming an attorney and federal prosecutor. Fairley sat down with 'Prince' to discuss her career trajectory, reactions to movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, and the organization that is set to replace the IPRA.
The Daily Princetonian: What was it like to be a woman in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at the University during the ’80s?
Sharon Fairley: You know, there weren’t very many of us. And, you know, I loved being in the engineering school ... I should sort of start from the beginning and tell you that my Princeton experience was wonderful. I mean, I’ve really loved it there. I felt like I could explore all the parts of my personality that I really was interested in exploring. And, you know, being in the engineering school was part of that. And the MAE class was relatively small is what I recall. I mean, I think there was like maybe 30 of us? It wasn’t like a big part of the engineering school in our class. But I was close with many of the people in our class and there were a handful of women and one of the women was a dear, dear friend who I still consider very, very close.... We were also in cheerleading together. And so we had that double connection, being in MAE and also having an extracurricular thing that we did together. So we became very close. Yeah, it was interesting. It was challenging, but we kind of did our own thing. And it was really enjoyable.
DP: You went on to work in marketing after your time at the University, and then switched over to a career in law. What prompted your decision to make the career switch?
SF: When I left Princeton I went directly to business school, which was very unusual at the time because business schools require that you have some prior work experience. You know, one to two years. But because when I was at Princeton, I had my General Motors fellowship. So I had been working for General Motors in the summertimes. And so I had some prior professional experience. And I think that they gave me credit for that. And so they admitted me ... directly from undergrad into the MBA program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania ... I really wanted to explore a career path that would allow me to leverage my analytical and my creative skills. What I loved about Princeton was that I was in the engineering school but I could also really enjoy the creative aspects of my personality doing theatre and singing.... You know, I was in Triangle ... a community theatre ... and Tigerlilies. And so I really felt like I had dual aspects of my personality — the analytical skills and the creative skills. And so I went to business school with the idea of trying to combine them into a career path. That’s really how I found my way into marketing. And when I got my MBA from the Wharton School in 1984 and I moved to New York, I started working in the advertising business. And so I did that and I really enjoyed that. It’s a great business. It was a very different business back in the ’80s compared to now because of the whole structure of marketing and advertising changing with the World Wide Web ... and e-marketing and all that. So it was a really enjoyable career and I got pretty good at it ... At the end of my marketing career I was running the consumer marketing for a large pharmaceutical company. And really what happened was a kind of confluence of several influences, right? So one was 9/11. And then at the same time there were a few corporate implosions ... scandals like Enron and WorldCom. And they all kind of happened around the same time. And it really caused me to question, you know, whether or not I wanted to continue to commit my personal expendable energy in the corporate world. And I started to feel like I wanted to do something that was more personally meaningful to me. And I was raised by two public servants who always were an inspiration, both in education. My father worked in the federal government. My mother worked in a county government in Montgomery County, Md., as a teacher and then as an administrator. And so I just decided that I really wanted to find something to do that ... was personally motivating. And so I had this situation where the company I was working for was ... going to be taken over by Pfizer. And that sort of created this junction in my career path and made me think about what I really wanted to do. And so it was then that I decided that I wanted to go to law school. So I went to law school. And once I went to law school, it sort of started the whole path of being involved in the criminal justice system.
DP: You’ve investigated and tried a variety of criminal cases involving federal criminal law violations such as illegal firearms possession, narcotics conspiracy, bank robbery/murder, murder for hire and economic espionage. What was the most memorable case you’ve worked on?
SF: [Being a federal prosecutor] is a tremendously rewarding job. And so for most of my career, I have had the opportunity to work on a variety of different kinds of cases. And definitely the most personally meaningful case that I had was a bank robbery murder case. And in this particular case, there was a bank robbery where three individuals went into a bank armed. And they robbed the bank. But in the course of the robbery, a younger teller was murdered. And his name was Tremaine Gibson. He was 23 years old at the time. I became involved because of the way federal prosecutors get involved in these cases — you have what’s called duty days. And so if you’re on duty and there’s a case that comes in, then it becomes assigned to you. So I was on duty the day that this robbery occurred. And I was a very, very junior prosecutor at the time. And so I became involved in this case. And over the course of the years that the case was pending, the victim’s father, Mr. Gibson’s father, came to court pretty much for every court hearing there was. And there was such a sense of commitment and responsibility as a prosecutor on this case because you feel like you want to see justice for this victim and his family who felt it was very important. So the case was pending for four years and ultimately went to trial. By this time of trial, I was a fairly experienced prosecutor; so I was chair of the trial and there were two other trainees that worked with me. And it was a really difficult and complex three-week trial. And at the end of it, we obviously were glad. There was a guilty verdict, and so the person who was on trial was convicted. It was the first time I ever cried on the job because the victim’s father came up to me when I walked out of the courtroom and just gave a big bear hug and I couldn’t help but shed tears because I just felt, you know, obviously relieved and gratified that it was the right result that was obviously very important.... It’s something that I will always carry with me. I will always remember Mr. Gibson and his family. And this year was the 10th anniversary of that incident, and it was something that I found personally meaningful. So that is definitely the case that I will always take with me.
DP: Now, more along the lines of the IPRA. What are some steps that you think the IPRA has taken, and is in the process of taking, to hold officers who break the rules accountable?
SF: When I was hired to lead the IPRA in December of 2015, I think Chicago was really in a crisis when it came to police accountability. There was just a lot of concern and nervousness and distrust of the system. And in the intervening months, there has been a lot of work that has been done to try to figure out what was going on, what the problems were, and how to correct them. And so the first thing that happened was the mayor of Chicago, who was the person that hired me into the job, said in addition to hiring myself and also hiring a new superintendent of the police department, he also assembled a task force to evaluate the police accountability system that was in place at the time. And so that task force came out with a series of recommendations in the middle of last year. And one of the recommendations they made that the agency that I was hired to lead, the IPRA ... the task force basically found that — after talking to members of the community and after doing its research — that the reputation of the agency was just so badly tarnished that even with reform, it would really be difficult to reinvigorate the agency to a point that people would have sufficient trust going forward. And so the task force recommended that that agency be scuttled, essentially, and that a new agency be created in its wake. And shortly thereafter, within a matter of weeks, the mayor accepted that recommendation and said that he agreed. And then over the course of last summer, so the summer of 2016, the community, the mayor, and the city council went through a fairly rigorous process of developing a plan and a vision for the new agency, which actually came together in the October of last year when the city council enacted an ordinance to create an agency to replace the IPRA. So, since October of last year, my job has been not only to continue to see the operations of IPRA because it continues to exist until the new agency that replaces it, but also to build out the new agency that was created by ordinance in October. And that agency is called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. So before the decision was made to replace IPRA, myself and my leadership team, we had put in place a number of reforms to try to put the ship in the right direction and try to correct some of the problems the prior agency had suffered from in terms of a lack of independence and lack of integrity. But with this new agency being built, it was just a major opportunity to build a new agency from scratch. So to build something from the ground up, they found best practices and a vision that would support the kind of accountability that the city of Chicago deserves. So we’ve been spending the last several months working towards that goal and have announced that the new agency will formally launch in September of this year. So right now, both agencies coexist. So IPRA continues to exist for the purpose of continuing to accept complaints about misconduct and to continue to investigate those complaints while the new agency is being built through staffing and training and building out the infrastructure. So on September 15 of this year, the new agency will formally take on responsibility for police oversight in Chicago. And then the IPRA will go away and cease to exist. So that’s kind of what’s going on right now. And so in terms of the design of the new agency, we’ve really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what problems plagued the prior agency and what reforms could be put in place to address those. And we’ve had a lot of input from that. And, you know, both from the report of the Police Accountability Task Force that the mayor established but also from the Department of Justice report that came out in January of this year. So we have been trying to address all of the issues that have been raised about the agency and build an agency that the city can be proud of.
DP: Sounds like it was a really challenging thing to do, to come into this organization and lead it and also run a new organization at the same time. What, according to you, was the most personally challenging thing to you in all of this?
SF: I’ve been in this role since ... a year and a half. And it’s been an incredible journey. It’s tasked every professional skill that I have, that I’ve possessed, that I’ve learned. I mean, from analytical skills, legal skills, communication skills that I learned when I was in marketing.... When I look back upon my career and my professional life, I feel like every job that I’ve had in the past prepared me for my next job. And so some people will look at my professional background and see that I went from engineering to marketing and then to being a federal prosecutor and say that “I don’t get that. It doesn’t make any sense.” That to me, I was just building all the skills that I needed to bear — as a federal prosecutor, the analytical skills, thinking analytically; in marketing where you learn communication skills and where you’re presenting your thoughts. You’re learning how people think, right, which is completely consistent when you’re trying to figure out what’s going to play well to a jury. What argument is going to make sense to a jury. All these things to me, they came together professionally. Very much so when I took this job, I’m using all the skills I learned professionally throughout the course of my professional life. The job is so complex and multifaceted that it requires good leadership skills, good writing skills, good legal skills, good analytical skills, good investigative skills.... So it’s really been a great experience and a great challenge and it’s pushed me and taxed me in a way that I’ve never been taxed before professionally.
DP: Recently, there’s been a lot of advocacy and student protests on the University’s campus and in the country at large with movements like #BlackLivesMatter and things like that in relation to the police. And so what would you say to students involved with those protests and those movements?
SF: These things are really, really important. When I talk about police accountability and what are the important values that make for success when you have a police accountability system in place.... My job is to run an agency — the civilian oversight agency — the civilian oversight of police. And so, some people don’t really understand a challenge, like, can a civilian really evaluate or have responsibility for overseeing a police officer who has certain kinds of skills and experience? You know, when you look at civilian oversight of policing, it’s been in place for a really long time — it’s been around for at least 60 years. In fact, this concept that civilians should have some say in how policing activity is conducted, really evolved out of the core concept of democracy, right? Democracy is about the fact that we consent to be governed and we give the government certain rights and responsibilities. And policing is one of the most important. We give them the responsibility and the duty, and they have the power to actually take life and liberty. And that’s really, really serious. So as citizens, we want to have some say in the manner in which our government utilizes those rights. And so that’s the concept of civilian oversight. These groups that are coming to the forefront and saying, “Look, we don’t agree with the way policing is done”; that’s just really important. It gets to the heart of democracy, which is the core of how our justice system works and how our society works. And so these things are really, really important and it’s great that students are engaging in this as a topic.
DP: On a more personal note, what do you think is your favorite memory from your time at Princeton?
SF: Well, I guess there would be several. But I think probably my favorite would be performing at McCarter Theatre in various productions that I was in. That became my home away from home at Princeton, between Triangle and other theatrical stuff that I did. I really enjoyed that and really felt that I kind of came into my own in that experience. It was fun, it was engaging, and I really enjoyed it a lot. So that would probably be my favorite thing.
DP: And your least favorite memory?
SF: My least favorite memory is during my senior year, I was working on an independent project. It was a project that I was working on with a MAE professor in the engineering school. And I was designing a computer program that did certain things. And I’d been working all day at the computer center. Back then, that was where the main computers were. It was different. Nobody had PCs then. And so we had this big computer system and I was working and I realized that I forgot to save what I did. And I started to freak out because I thought that I’d lost a whole day’s worth of work. And eventually, I realized that all I had to do was like hit save in the moment and then it would be fine, but there was like a half hour where I thought that it was all gone. And I was like freaking out. I was running around. I called my roommates asking for help and it was crazy. It was hysterical. And then it turned out to be fine. And so I was fine. But in that half an hour, I was just totally freaked out.
DP: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
SF: I just am really looking forward to coming back for Reunions. It’s always a great time and it’s always great to reconnect with people. I really had a wonderful experience at Princeton. What I loved about Princeton is I think whoever you are, you can go there and find your tribe. You know, you can go to Princeton and there will be a handful of other people — however esoteric your interest is, you’re going to be able to find other people who have the same interest to be able to explore it. That’s what I thought was just so tremendous. And I really, really appreciated it. So it’s always been a dear part of my professional existence — I felt like there were doors that were open to me maybe because I was a Princeton grad that may not have otherwise been opened. So I felt very grateful about that. And so I always try to open doors myself for people who come from Princeton so I can try to do what I can to give back. But, you know, it’s really an important part of my existence. And I will always be forever grateful for my experience there.