Police Reform Seizes Spotlight at WTTW Forum as Lightfoot Once Again Clashes with Challengers

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended her record on police reform Tuesday and took aim at those seeking to deny her a second term in office during a combative forum hosted by WTTW News three weeks before Election Day.

Lightfoot said her administration had made significant progress toward reforming the Chicago Police Department, which will remain under the control of a federal judge and a consent decree at least until 2027, drawing scorn from her opponents: Ja’Mal Green, Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward), state Rep. Kam Buckner, Willie Wilson, Brandon Johnson, Paul Vallas and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward). U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García bowed out of WTTW’s forum at the last minute to attend President Joe Biden’s state of the union address in Washington, D.C.

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“I appreciate that all these folks want to throw bombs from the cheap seats, but the fact of the matter is absolutely clear,” said Lightfoot, who has clashed with her opponents repeatedly at a series of forums and debates hosted by neighborhood groups and media organizations. “We are in compliance or improving our compliance every single day. And this nonsense that you’re hearing from some of these folks really, really completely belies the facts.”

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A coalition of more than two dozen groups working to reform the Chicago Police Department sent a letter to Lightfoot on Monday telling her they are “deeply troubled by the city’s lack of consent decree progress.”

“The city and the CPD have had years to move from improved policies to reformed operations,” according to the letter. “Chicagoans have fought, bargained, and waited long enough for public safety grounded in people’s inherent value and humanity. Chicago cannot suffer any more delays.”

In addition, a November report from Maggie Hickey, a former federal prosecutor who is the court-appointed independent monitor keeping tabs on the police department’s compliance with the consent decree, said that reform efforts have been compromised by staffing shortages throughout the department.

Lightfoot has defended the decision by police brass not to fire an officer after a probe by the city’s watchdog found he lied about his ties to the Proud Boys, a far-right, anti-government group.

“Of course we should not hire, we should not support, we should not retain any officer that is associated with any hate group,” Lightfoot said, adding that the department conducted a “fulsome investigation.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) said she would have fired that officer — not Robert Boik, who was fired by Chicago Police Supt. David Brown from his position as the head of the department’s Office of Constitutional Policing. Boik was terminated after he asked Brown to reverse an order moving officers from the reform effort to patrol duties.

That exchange grew tense when Lightfoot objected to Vallas’ decision to join the debate.

“I’m talking to Mr. Vallas who’s … trying to treat me like I’m some child,” Lightfoot said.

Then Johnson jumped into the debate, prompting Lightfoot to ask Johnson to stop speaking.

“Mr. Johnson, please,” Lightfoot said. “I know you want to mansplain up here, but you got to give me the opportunity to finish.”

After the debate, Johnson said he had apologized to Lightfoot for the exchange, telling reporters that he thought she was done speaking when he began his remarks, but said that it wasn’t mansplaining, which is when a man explains something to a woman that she already understands.

Lightfoot told reporters she was pleased Johnson apologized, but insisted it was mansplaining.

King said that exchange was a microcosm of what is wrong with Chicago politics.

”This is exactly what the people of Chicago don’t want: People up here bickering,” King said. “They want to hear our solutions to problems.”

Candidates at the WTTW News mayoral forum. (Michael Izquierdo)Candidates at the WTTW News mayoral forum. (Michael Izquierdo)

Johnson, Green and Buckner said they would scrap plans to launch a new gang database. More than three and a half years ago, the city’s watchdog warned the police department’s gang databases were riddled with errors, ripe for abuse and disproportionately targeted Black and Latino Chicagoans.

After the forum, Vallas said a database to track gang members is a crucial tool for police and he would ensure that it operated properly.

“The gang database has not made us safer,” Buckner said. “In fact, it has made people in communities, many of whom look like me, not be able to walk around the city and participate in a way that’s fair and equitable.”

Johnson said he was proud of his 2019 vote to ban the Cook County Sheriff’s Department from using a similar database, saying the system was of not value to law enforcement officials, noting that it included an 8-year old and a 108-year-old.

“That is the oldest G in America,” said Johnson, using a term for gangster and drawing laughs from the crowd.

The crowd also laughed when Wilson complained Lightfoot was getting too many questions, adding that she is “responsible for all the problems.” Wilson later criticized Lightfoot for interrupting him.

Johnson joined Lightfoot in attacking Vallas’ record, blaming him for worsening the Chicago Public Schools’ finances by using funds to pay for operating costs rather than pensions. Vallas led the district from 1995 to 2001, before being hired to lead school districts across the nation.

“Paul (Vallas) was the (city) budget director during the time in which pensions weren’t being paid,” Johnson said. “Look, everywhere Paul Vallas has been in charge of finances, he’s been run out of the city.”

Johnson bristled at questions about where he differs with the Chicago Teachers Union. Johnson, whose campaign has been largely funded by progressive labor organizations, was a member of the teachers’ union and a paid organizer.

Johnson said he favored fully funded schools, affordable housing and worker protections, issues at the heart of the teachers’ union negotiations with city officials, and said he would serve as a counterweight to the “interests of corporations” that he suggested had been overrepresented in city government.

“If you’re asking me if I do not believe in public education, what kind of question is that?” Johnson said.

Early voting will expand to all 50 wards on Monday. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote on Feb. 28, the top two finishers will head to a runoff on April 4.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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