Lori Lightfoot, who chairs the Chicago Police Board, is our guest for the next two weeks on Chicago Newsroom. We recorded a double-length conversation on August 24 and split it into two parts, both of which you can watch here.
Lightfoot was just reappointed to the Board by Mayor Emanuel after what appeared to be a chilly meeting. Although the Mayor has made progress toward reforms that were recommended by the Accountability Task Force she chaired, Lightfoot has publicly criticized the Mayor for moving too slowly on the big, institutional changes she feels the public is demanding.
The Police Department is, she asserts, the most important civic institution in our city. “If people don’t feel safe,” she explains, “if they don’t feel like the Police Department has legitimacy, that’s a recipe for chaos. So we’ve got to make sure that we do what we can to make sure the reforms are being done, that we strengthen the support of police officers through training, and we also make sure that the public is invited into that conversation with a full seat at the table, that there’s transparency around discipline and accountability. That is the only way that we are going to be able to stand up a Police Department that the public frankly can be proud of, but more to the point, we will feel comfortable calling in a time of need.”
“We recruit from segregated neighborhoods,” she continues. “And the young men and women who pledge their commitment to be Chicago police officers are coming from those segregated neighborhoods. They are meeting each other in the Police Academy for the first time. And in many instances, they are meeting somebody who is their same age, who has the same aspirations, but has a completely different background, and they come into the Academy with a lot of preconceived notions about the other.”
But, nevertheless, she says all recruits coming up in the system have to be comfortable with a new reality about policing, and that includes the scrutiny that video surveillance systems like body and dash-cameras bring to modern policing.
“If you’re not comfortable with the scrutiny,” she proclaims, “and really, to me what it comes down to is police legitimacy, it depends on the consent of the governed. It depends upon people… feeling like they are willing to afford officers the ability to use deadly force in certain circumstances at its most extreme. If you are not comfortable with citizen oversight– the consent of the governed– you should not be a police officer.”
Earlier this year, Superintendent Eddie Johnson rolled out a new “use of force” policy and began implementing it immediately. Lightfoot says it’s a solid beginning.
“One, I think, of the hallmarks of the new use of force policy is the emphasis on the sanctity of life,” she asserts. “And it says it upfront, unambiguously, which is important because you know, things like under Illinois law there’s something that was called the ‘fleeing felon’ rule. Which meant if somebody had committed a felony or that you as the officer believed that they might at some point commit a felony, you were fully authorized to shoot them in the back as they were fleeing away from you, when they posed no immediate danger to you. The concept was because they had committed a felony they might be a danger to the community. That’s a crazy law, and frankly I think even though shootings were done in those circumstances, it put the officers and the Department at odds with the public. There was a point in time where people obviously felt like that was okay, but the world has changed and policing has to not just be whipsawed by every political movement that comes along, but it needs to be mindful of the community in which it serves, what the community’s values are, what the community’s sensibilities are.”
During Lightfoot’s tenure as Chair, the Police Board, which functions as essentially a quasi-court for police personnel who’ve been charged with serious violations, found itself becoming a much more serious hearing body. Of fifteen cases heard, all resulted in a firing, a suspension or resignation. Now, if the Superintendent brings charges, the Board is far more likely to agree.
“When I started in roughly August of 2015, I was mindful of the fact that the Police Board concurred with the superintendent only 35% of the time, and I thought that seems odd to me.” Lightfoot wondered.
In fact, the more stringent police board is something the police union is threatening to make a big issue during the ongoing contract negotiations.
“Yeah,” Lightfoot says. “They want to move to try to take away the Police Board’s jurisdiction over these cases, and it should be a hot topic during negotiations, and the City should push back vociferously, and absolutely not yield any ground on agreeing that police officers don’t have to come to, in these serious cases don’t have to come before a public hearing and give account of themselves, rather than going into the black box of arbitrations as the Union is trying to do. That would be going so far in the wrong direction at this time, that I hope that the City sends a very clear message to the Union that is simply a non-starter.
On the subject of union negotiations, Lightfoot says the newly-elected Kevin Graham is going to find running the union more difficult than running for office.
“Well there are definitely Trumpian tones to Mr. Graham’s campaign,” she claims. “You know, I think again you have to take it with a grain of salt. The FOP obviously is the biggest union, and in theory they represent the largest number of officers in its collective bargaining unit. But I think you have to ask yourself who actually voted in that election, what percentage of the officers that could vote, actually did vote. I talk to officers all the time. I have friends who are officers. Officers stop me on the street and we have conversations. I’m not 100% accurate that the fire and brimstone that we saw during the course of the FOP presidency campaign is entirely reflective of where officers actually are, and I will say it– particularly officers of color.”
Some of what’s being said by the FOP, she says confidently, is just posturing as contract negotiations get under way. “You know, as President Trump is finding, campaigning is very different from governing. And being a responsible adult in a difficult situation I think requires different skills, different perspectives than it does to go out and campaign and say you’re going to be the toughest SOB that’s out there and you’re going to win this this and this for your people. The reality sets in pretty quickly once you’re actually in office and you recognize the constraints and limitations on the scope of your power. I would imagine some of that reality is setting in now, but as I said before I think the Unions are important. They play a particularly important role as being the voice and advocates for their members. But this is a different time, and they need to deal with the reality of what we’re in and the challenges that we face, and direction that we need to go in towards reform.”
Earlier in our conversation Lightfoot emphasized the importance of police personnel recognizing the “consent of the governed.” We asked her what percent of the current police department buys into the concept of “the consent of the governed?”
“I think a shockingly small number,” she says. “From my conversations, what I’ve witnessed, and I wouldn’t just say the rank and file, I would say it also goes up to the exempt ranks. I don’t think they’re there yet, but they need to be there, and I hope that we can get them there, and I hope they get there willingly.”
A lot’s been written lately about the “Strategic Subjects List.” It’s a data-base generated by an algorithm that purports to have the power to predict when person is in danger of shooting, or being shot. But, despite police officials telling the public that there were about 1400 people on the list, a FOIA obtained by the Sun-Times revealed that the data-base has almost 400,000 entries. We asked Lightfoot if the public should trust, or have confidence in, the List.
“You can’t get out there and constantly talk about the strategic subjects list without people wanting to know more about it,” she explains. “What is this? And am I on it? How do I get on it? What’s the criteria? … Managing the communications around what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it is critically important, and with due respect to the police Department, I think they’ve laid a big egg when it came to this list.”
In June, a group of civil rights and other organizations filed suit against the city (Campbell v City of Chicago) seeking court oversight of the police reform process. Last week, the City filed suit to dismiss that lawsuit, saying that police reform was progressing well and court oversight was unnecessary.
Lightfoot says that the City, despite its efforts at police reform, is missing the point.
“Stepping back from this particular lawsuit, there’s a continuing sentiment that is deep and wide-spread, particularly in communities of color here in the City, that our police department is failing those same communities,” she tells us. “That our police department is continuing in practices that violate our constitutional rights. Now whether that perception is real or not, and I think there’s a lot of evidence that the problems continue, the perception is real. And deep. And heart-felt. We saw that in a number of different ways through the police Accountability Task Force process. And quite apart from litigation, the police department has to reckon with that perception and that reality because it cannot effectively do its core mission of keeping us safe if people don’t regard it as legitimate for whatever reason.”
We asked Lightfoot if she sees politics in her future.
“I’m interested in policy, I’m interested in getting something done,” she tells us.
“You know I come from very humble beginnings and I have been extremely fortunate and blessed in my life. And the challenges that I describe? Those are challenges for people of my own family. So I know this stuff very well and I feel it deeply.”
“I have a brother who’s spent most of his adult life incarcerated. He’s now a 60-something year old man struggling every single day to find a job that doesn’t require him to do physical labor like he’s a 20-year old. So I get these issues. And I feel like given that I’ve been so fortunate, that I have an obligation to try to help.”
You can listen to these conversations as audio-only programs here:
And read the full transcript here: CN transcript Aug 24 2017