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Lori Lightfoot’s Record Shows the Limits of ‘Police Reform’

In various offices across two decades, Mayor Lightfoot has failed to bring change to the Chicago Police Department.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lori Lightfoot has had several chances to hold the Chicago Police Department accountable for its actions.

She had a chance in 2002, when she was the chief of the city’s Office of Professional Standards, and she ruled that an off-duty Chicago cop was justified in fatally shooting a 17-year-old Black boy. She had another chance in 2015, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to a task force convened after Officer Jason Van Dyke killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Most recently, she has had nearly two years to address the department’s culture of misconduct since taking over as mayor in 2019.

After the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by Officer Eric Stillman, Lightfoot stood in front of reporters and tried to explain why one of her officers shot a child who had his hands in the air.

“Simply put: We failed Adam,” Lightfoot said during a press conference in which she urged Chicago residents to react with “calm” and peace. “We cannot afford to fail one more young person.”

But Chicago has a long history of not holding its police officers accountable, particularly in cases of police violence toward residents, which is why some organizers feel certain that more young people will be failed by the city.

Lightfoot campaigned for mayor on her record as a police reformer. That record, however, has long been criticized by local activist organizations, who say she’s failed to do much of substance in the years she’s overseen Chicago police. Other mayors—including some with seemingly less experience in police issues—have taken more drastic steps to reform their police departments in recent years. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mayor Tim Keller announced in June that his city planned to divert city funds to create an unarmed unit to respond to homelessness, addiction, and mental health crises around the city. (The Albuquerque Police Department had faced criticisms similar to those levied at the Chicago Police Department, and was also subject to oversight from the U.S. Department of Justice.) In August, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that her office would work to create a team of unarmed, behavioral health workers to respond to nonviolent calls for service in that city as well.

In contrast, Lightfoot was among a group of mayors who unveiled a multi-city police reform plan in mid-2020 that called for greater transparency, stricter use-of-force policies, and more accountability among existing police departments—but rejected defunding the police.

After a stint as a federal prosecutor, Lightfoot was appointed in 2002 as chief administrator of the Chicago Office of Professional Standards, an oversight body that reviewed complaints against the police. The office, which existed from 1974 until 2007, was a largely toothless board that was under the control of the police department itself and had no power to subpoena officers. In 2003, Lightfoot told the Chicago Reader that there had been at least 400 alleged misconduct cases sent to prosecutors for review since 1999, but that prosecutors filed charges in just one instance—for an off-duty incident.

Lightfoot also left a trail of questionable cases in which she appears to have covered for officers who committed acts of violence. Soon after her appointment, Lightfoot inherited the review of a shooting that occurred in June 2000, in which an off-duty cop named Phyllis Clinkscales fatally shot a 17-year-old Black boy named Robert Washington. According to the Chicago Tribune, the teenager had allegedly tried to steal Clinkscales’s car, and she responded by shooting him four times in the back of the head. Office of Professional Standards investigators found that Clinkscales lied about significant aspects of the shooting, most notably by claiming that she had fired from feet away and that Washington had pointed a gun at her. In fact, OPS investigators found, Clinkscales had shot him at such close range that the gun left powder burns and a muzzle imprint on his head.

Investigators ruled that the shooting was unjustified and moved to fire Clinkscales, a decision that then-Police Superintendent Terry Hillard disliked. During Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign in 2019, she told Chicago’s ABC affiliate that once Hillard rejected the findings of the investigation, her hands were tied. Lightfoot overturned the initial ruling, and Clinkscales was suspended for 30 days. In a 2015 investigation, the Chicago Tribune found that Hillard and the department’s general counsel had pushed back hard against Lightfoot’s predecessor, Callie Baird, as Baird’s administration investigated the shooting. Also in 2015, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office opened an investigation into the shooting, and no one was ever charged in the case.

Lightfoot endured further criticism for an incident that happened a year later. In 2003, two Chicago Police Department officers shot and killed 23-year-old Kenneth Dukes after he ran from police. The police and Dukes’s acquaintances tell drastically different versions of what occurred that day: Chicago officers said they heard shots fired, went to investigate, saw Dukes holding a gun, and then watched as Dukes ran. Dukes’s friend later told the Chicago Reporter that he and Dukes had noticed two undercover cops in a car idling on their street, and when the cops realized they’d been caught, they jumped out and Dukes ran. The officers shot Dukes five times.

In a March 2004 letter to the Chicago Reporter, Dukes’s brother, Jonathan Whitlow, criticized Lightfoot directly for how she handled the incident.

“To justify Kenneth’s murder, the police investigating his death decided to concoct an elaborate lie,” Whitlow wrote. “They claim that Kenneth turned twice with a gun but never fired it and, in fear for his life, the officer shot and killed Kenneth. Lori Lightfoot, chief administrator of the Office of Professional Standards, was quoted as saying it’s preposterous to suggest that there is a police culture that condones murder, but in the case of my brother, the evidence does not support her statement.”

Dukes’s family sued the department, and the suit was voluntarily dismissed in 2006. A review by The Appeal shows the two officers named in the lawsuit, Edward Kos and Steven Del Bosque, have since been named in multiple lawsuits against the city. In 2005, for example, Del Bosque was involved in an incident in which cops wrongfully detained Noel Padilla on the street, and then drove Padilla to both his home and his mother’s home to look for drugs. The officers found none but arrested Padilla anyway on charges that were later dropped. Padilla sued, and the city paid him a $1.9 million settlement. According to the Citizens Police Data Project, Kos has received 28 complaints—a number that puts him above 94 percent of officers—since joining the force in 2000.

In October 2014, during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election campaign, Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot Laquan McDonald. Emanuel’s administration withheld footage of the incident and waited to settle a lawsuit from McDonald’s family until after he won the election.When the footage was finally released in November 2015, demonstrators took to the streets to demand change. Van Dyke was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder.

In 2015, Emanuel appointed Lightfoot to two police accountability organizations: He named her head of the Chicago Police Board, a nine-member civilian oversight agency created by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1960 after a series of brutality scandals, as well as the leader of the new Chicago Police Accountability Task Force that would investigate problems at the department. Activist organizations were immediately skeptical of both groups, given their closeness to Emanuel. In December 2015, protesters stormed a Police Board meeting chanting for Lightfoot and the other members to “Step down!”

The task force issued a scathing report in April 2016 that outlined the Chicago Police Department’s long history of racism and brutality.

“CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” the report stated.

Although the report was sharply critical of the department’s history, it did not call for drastic changes. Among other items, the report asked the city to mandate body-worn cameras and dissolve the Independent Police Review Authority, which replaced the Office of Professional Standards  that Lightfoot used to run. The task force also recommended that the city mandate the release of all body-worn camera footage in shootings by police within 60 days, a change that Emanuel embraced.

At around the same time, Lightfoot herself began floating rumors that she was considering a run for mayor. She began attacking Emanuel—the man who appointed her to two separate posts—as weak and beholden to police unions. In May 2018, she announced her candidacy and said Emanuel was failing Chicago. Emanuel and his allies called Lightfoot an opportunist who used the board to bolster her own political chances. Lightfoot demurred.

“If the mayor wants to debate my record on police reform and accountability vs. his record, let’s start with the way that he handled the Laquan McDonald shooting,” she said in May 2018. “I am available for a one-on-one debate anytime, anywhere.” In campaign ads, she boasted that she’d spent her career holding Chicago cops accountable.

But in the three years since Lightfoot challenged Emanuel to a debate on police reform, few would claim that she’s drastically changed the culture or structure of the Chicago Police Department. Since taking the mayor’s office in 2019, she has failed to fulfill basic campaign promises regarding police reform. As the Chicago Tribune noted earlier this month, Lightfoot has still not unveiled a new plan for civilian oversight of the police department, something she promised to do within her first 100 days of office. Her office has repeatedly missed deadlines set by federal monitors from the U.S. Department of Justice, who began overseeing the police after the McDonald shooting. In her first year in office, her administration missed more than 70 percent of its reporting deadlines; in her second year, her office missed 60 percent. During the 2020 uprisings that occurred after George Floyd’s death, Lightfoot’s officers were filmed brutalizing peaceful protesters—while her administration approved raising bridges to keep demonstrators from wealthy downtown areas.

And her department has stalled public release of police misconduct videos. In December, a woman named Anjanette Young publicized body-worn camera footage that showed Chicago police officers raiding her home with guns drawn—while she was nude and changing. The police had failed to verify that it was raiding the correct address and raided her home by mistake.

Young shared the footage with the local CBS affiliate—but hours before CBS was set to air it, lawyers working for Lightfoot’s administration filed a court motion attempting to block the release. Lightfoot’s attorneys also asked the court to discipline Young for allegedly violating a confidentiality order she’d signed with the city.

In a January press conference, Lightfoot said she’d apologized personally to Young after viewing the video, but said she had no idea what the footage would show until CBS aired the clips. But the Chicago Tribune obtained an email thread that showed Lightfoot was expressly warned of the footage’s contents.

Earlier this month, Lightfoot released footage of Chicago police killing yet another child—this time, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was filmed placing both of his empty hands in the air before he was shot to death.

Lightfoot responded, once again, by calling for peace. She warned local businesses to board up their windows. And she once again raised the city’s bridges.