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Activists Say Chicago Mayor’s Police Reform Promises Ring Hollow

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has hampered the process of installing a police oversight council, activists say, despite making it a major part of her public safety platform during her mayoral run.

Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago, speaks during her inauguration ceremony on May 20, 2019. Getty Images

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered a solemn speech on June 2, prompted by the protests that had been roiling the city over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The previous weekend saw not only tens of thousands of people demonstrating, but also an aggressive, militarized police response. There was some looting, but also hundreds of arrests of demonstrators who were corralled by police after Lightfoot shut down public transit and lifted the bridges that separate downtown Chicago from wealthy North Side neighborhoods. Now the mayor was making promises of police reform, as she so often has over the course of her public life. 

“The process of [police] reform has been too slow and too narrowly focused,” Lightfoot said, acknowledging that the city is still working to implement reforms mandated by a federal consent decree that came out of a class-action lawsuit over police violence and discrimination as well as a lawsuit by the state attorney general.

In addition to that process, Lightfoot promised to implement several measures “within the next 90 days.” The reforms she named include training for police officers, “which brings the community into the academy as teachers”; a “real officer wellness program” for officers to manage their trauma and stress; “crisis intervention and procedural justice training for all officers”; and “a new recruit program on police-community relations and community policing with views from the community about what works.”

Missing from that list was one item that reform activists have long been waiting for—the installation of civilian oversight of the police department, a key issue Lightfoot campaigned on when she ran for mayor. A caller to WBEZ asked the mayor a week after her speech what she was doing about the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability ordinance that was supposed to establish this oversight and that’s been stuck in the City Council’s public safety committee for almost two years. 

“My team has been working diligently, diligently, for months with the GAPA folks to reach some agreement,” Lightfoot said. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to bridge the final gaps on a couple of key issues. We have been actively involved with GAPA, their council, and, also, we’ve gotten a public safety committee itself involved.”

That answer left GAPA coordinator Desmon Yancy livid. “She wasn’t truthful when she mentioned that her office has been meeting regularly with our coalition regarding our ordinance,” he said. “For her to lie and say we’ve been meeting is a slap in the face.”

The GAPA coalition, which consists of grassroots groups and nonprofit organizations from across the city, had been advocating for civilian oversight of the police since 2016. In March 2018, the coalition’s proposed ordinance was introduced in the City Council. But despite garnering the support of 29 aldermen—more than half the council—it hasn’t advanced to a vote.

While she was campaigning, Lightfoot made GAPA’s proposal for police oversight a major part of her public safety platform. She told supporters that an elected council would have the power to steer CPD policy as well as hire and fire the police superintendent, members of the police board, and the administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates police killings. 

After she took office in May 2019, her administration appeared sincere in its commitment to GAPA. Lightfoot announced it as a priority for her first 100 days and held more than a dozen meetings with GAPA organizers over the last year. But in March, right before the pandemic lockdown, discussions stalled. Yancy said the administration has hampered the process because it hasn’t committed to a budget for the new council, or agreed to give it final say over department policy. This has been particularly frustrating, he said, since the coalition already had to cede some ground on direct hiring and firing powers for the council, due to a likely conflict with state laws.

“We don’t have an ordinance, and I don’t think we’re much closer than we were when we started,” Yancy said. “Here we are with another mayor who’s failed to listen to the community.”

Until this current political moment, Lightfoot has managed to balance a reputation as a police reformer—and a track record for being involved in past mayors’ police oversight initiatives—with scant concrete commitments to structural policing changes. She’d been a federal prosecutor, briefly served as the head of the Office of Professional Standards (tasked with investigating police misconduct) in the Richard M. Daley administration, and was subsequently installed as the head of the Chicago Police Board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. During her tenure, she was criticized particularly for not moving to fire Dante Servin, who stayed on the department payroll for years after killing Rekia Boyd. (More officers “chose to resign from CPD rather than face the board” while she was in charge, her campaign later boasted. Resigning allows cops to keep their pensions.) In the wake of the Laquan McDonald scandal, Emanuel chose Lightfoot to head the Police Accountability Task Force. Her team released a scathing report about CPD in 2016 with dozens of reform recommendations, most of which have not been implemented.

Three weeks before she announced her campaign for mayor in May 2018, Lightfoot published an op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business. In the piece, she argued that the city “should not shrink from or obstruct the desire of citizens to have a more direct say in how their tax dollars are spent and to exercise a measure of accountability on how the police impact life and liberty in neighborhoods throughout the city.” She concluded the op-ed by proclaiming that civilian oversight “is a debate we need to have here.”

Throughout her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot presented herself as the pro-police-reform candidate—a position surprising to those who’d considered her to be deeply embedded within the law enforcement status quo. Still, many in Chicago decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. In 2019, she won the mayoral runoff in a landslide with a public safety platform that included 18 distinct promises on police reform—from GAPA’s civilian oversight model, to a “citywide race and reconciliation process,” to redesigning supervisor selection criteria, to replacing CPD’s gang database. Some of these promises were even accompanied by statements that started with “I will…” and “I support…” 

During her first year, few of the platform points have been implemented. GAPA’s ordinance is stalled, there’s no reconciliation process to speak of, and an overhaul of the gang database is months away, with no clarity on whether it would decrease the unfair criminalization of Black and Latinx youth. Most of her 90-day reform measures were things she’d promised two years ago when she started her mayoral run. A report from the consent decree monitor filed in court on Thursday showed the city missed 70 percent of its deadlines to implement reforms.

In a statement, the mayor’s office defended Lightfoot’s progress on fulfilling her promises. According to the office, she has taken steps to improve district-level community policing strategy: hundreds of officers are slated to be moved to neighborhood patrol duties, and policy changes are in the works to reduce the risk of civil litigation related to search warrant execution and vehicle pursuits. The city, according to the statement, is working on “a pilot program to resolve some types of misconduct complaints through restorative-justice based mediation” and has seen a nearly 25 percent increase in homicide clearances. On June 15, the mayor announced a new task force to overhaul CPD’s use-of-force policies—something that was last done just three years ago. She also came out in favor of licensing cops.

Lightfoot’s supporters say the mayor needs more time to accomplish what she set out to do, especially given the complications of the pandemic. But others see the status quo—continued police brutality, Lightfoot’s refusal to take cops out of schools, reform ideas that amount to greater funding for police rather than other city services—as exactly what the city should have expected to see because, they say, Lightfoot was never a real reformer

“It’s very much in line with what we were expecting when it comes to this mayor,” said Jazmine Salas, co-chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. For years, the organization has led its own coalition of community groups in calling for a Civilian Police Accountability Council. That idea goes much further than GAPA’s proposal by completely transferring policymaking and police department oversight out of mayoral control. Sixty thousand Chicagoans have signed petitions in support of CPAC, and 19 aldermen have co-sponsored the ordinance in the City Council (which also hasn’t had a vote). As thousands of people march in the streets, signs calling for CPAC are ubiquitous.

“I feel like she’s really good at manufacturing these moments when she can come off as a progressive leader, but she’s not, she’s very much a part of the CPD system,” Salas said about the mayor. “Her whole 90-day promise and everything she’s proposing is so surface level. It doesn’t change the fact that Black and brown people don’t have any power in our current policing system.”