‘It’s a nice hashtag’: Chicago’s Lightfoot pushes police reform, not defunding
The mayor says the status quo for law enforcement has failed but argues defunding the police would hurt diversity on the force.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot: “We talk about policing being a noble profession, but there is no uniform standard across the country.” | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
By SHIA KAPOS
06/24/2020 04:30 AM EDT
CHICAGO — Lori Lightfoot was a federal prosecutor handling a big drug conspiracy case in the late 1990s when she asked to go on a ride-along with Chicago police officers on the city’s South Side. It was a chance to get a first-hand look at how deals went down on the street.
As they cruised from block to block, the officers made a surprise stop. They got out and grabbed a Black kid they saw at a corner. “Scared the bejesus out of everybody, me included,” Lightfoot said in an interview this week.
When Lightfoot asked why they made the stop, the answer was stunning in how routine it turned out to be, she recalled: “We thought the kid had a gun.” Did he? “No, we were wrong,” they said. And they went on about their day after Lightfoot scolded them.
“That had a really, lasting impression on me,” said Lightfoot, who is now Chicago’s mayor — the first African American woman to hold the office. “Those are the kind of things where you … don’t feel like you have claim to the geography under your feet, where people can just be stopped for any or no reason. How do you build on that? How do you have trust?”
Lightfoot, a Democrat, swept last year’s run-off election as a reform candidate willing to challenge the power structure of city government. Law enforcement in Chicago already had a troubling track record of civil rights violations that led to a consent decree with the Justice Department under the Obama administration, a process the department still operates under. She was also tapped to be president of the city’s Police Board, a civilian oversight panel, by her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.
Once an outside agitator, Lightfoot is now on the inside battling on multiple fronts. She’s caught between a defensive police department and warring with its union while staring down activists in the streets who don’t believe her ideas match the scale of the problem. What’s layered on top are many of the same struggles other liberal mayors across the country are confronted with while trying to keep a deadly pandemic at bay: eroding relationships between the police and communities of color, a whopping $700 million budget hole, streets filled with protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and bursts of everyday violence.
The police confrontation that disturbed Lightfoot more than 20 years ago still plays all over America today. But she’s not prepared to align herself with efforts to “defund the police,” a movement energized by Floyd’s death, nor does she believe it conflicts with her own work to overhaul local law enforcement.
“Defund the police” is a “nice hashtag,” Lightfoot said, but it ignores how reform works, will hurt efforts to diversify the force, and goes against what Chicago residents are telling her they want. That resistance has been echoed by Democratic mayors in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser recently said “We fund the police at the level that we need it funded.”
Lightfoot, who sat down for a wide-ranging interview about police reform in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, said the debate about overhauling law enforcement is more nuanced than protesters will admit.
“Not a single person” Lightfoot has spoken to from Chicago’s neighborhoods has said they want fewer police officers on hand, she said a day after one of the city’s most violent weekends of the year where 106 people were shot and 14 killed, including a 3-year-old.
Literally “defund” the police, Lightfoot said, puts newer recruits the city needs at risk because they lack seniority. “We’d have to get rid of the youngest, most diverse, most well-trained officers.”
While Lightfoot may butt heads with the demands of “defund” protesters, she seems to align with the principles in spirit.
“The status quo has failed,” she said.
And she agrees with redirecting officers so they’re not answering social-service-related calls that they’re not always equipped to handle. The first responder has been police, and “that doesn’t make sense. And we know that,” she said. The city is looking at models used in other cities where dispatchers are trained to know who to send to an emergency call — maybe it’s a police officer, maybe a social worker, or both.
In her view, there’s a middle ground that includes more transparency, and officers who are licensed — an idea supported by Illinois’ Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Secretary of State Jesse White, two statewide Black elected officials.
Lightfoot says licensing would set standards and “hold people accountable” for their actions.
“You go and get your nails done, you get your hair cut, you get your oil change. All those people are licensed and certified by the state,” Lightfoot said. “We talk about policing being a noble profession, but there is no uniform standard across the country.”
A lack of transparency, means bad cops today can leave one town and go to another, with no one being the wiser.
Lightfoot also said reform must include resolving a contract with the Fraternal Order of Police that lapsed three years ago.
“No police union is going to give up hard-fought rights easily, and I expect a fight. But I’m optimistic,” she said, referring to a police contract with Chicago Police. Lightfoot hopes to hear word from an arbitrator this week on where that stands.
Lightfoot’s biggest move toward reform started long before Floyd’s killing seized the nation’s attention. She initiated INVEST South/West, a program that’s funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the city’s South and West sides, areas hardest hit by violence and long ignored by previous administrations focused more on building Chicago’s downtown.
The goal of INVEST South/West is to improve public safety and attract businesses to invest in the neighborhoods, an effort that takes time, Lightfoot acknowledged.
All her ideas — on transparency and licensing, a union contract and business investment — aren’t “something you can snap your fingers” and make happen.
“You’re talking about building authentic, lasting relationships. And in some instances, you’re starting with some partnership. In some other instances you’re starting with nothing,” Lightfoot says. “That’s hard work. But it’s necessary work. And we’ve got to take the time that is necessary to build those trusting relationships.”