Sluggish Pace of Chicago Police Reform Effort Complicates Public Safety Debate in Mayor’s Race

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

When Lori Lightfoot ran for mayor in 2019, she vowed to swiftly implement the court order requiring the Chicago Police Department to change the way it trains, supervises and disciplines officers.

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That order was issued after a 2017 federal investigation found officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans. But as the consent decree prepares to enter its fourth year, progress has been anything but rapid, with the city in full compliance with 3% of its requirements, according to data released by the Chicago Police Department.

But that hasn’t stopped Lightfoot from touting her efforts to bring real change to a beleaguered department that resisted six previous efforts at reform, claiming erroneously that the department is in compliance with 80% of the consent decree.

In fact, the department is in full, preliminary or secondary compliance with just 53% of the consent decree requirements, according to data released by the Chicago Police Department. It is not clear why Lightfoot’s remarks did not match the data reported by the department.

Lightfoot told WTTW News that when she took office in May 2019, three months after the agreement was finalized by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow, the city’s compliance with the consent decree was “in dismal straights.”

“I think what the voters want to know is that we’re actually making progress,” Lightfoot said. “I think what the voters should know is that we are further ahead in our time under a consent decree than any other city.”

The Los Angeles Police Department was under a consent decree between 2001 and 2009, while the Oakland Police Department remains under a consent decree that began in 2003.

“I feel like we are in a good place on a great trajectory, and we will continue to make important strides in reforming and (increasing) accountability in our police department,” Lightfoot said, touting the implementation of new requirements that every officer complete 40 hours of training annually.

However, a coalition of more than two dozen groups working to reform the 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.”

Efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department have been compromised in recent months by staffing shortages, according to 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.

Those concerns echoed ones expressed by 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 in August. Boik was terminated after he asked Brown to reverse an order moving officers from the reform effort to patrol duties.

Charlie Beck, who briefly served as Chicago’s top cop in 2019 and was the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department while it was under a consent decree, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Boik’s firing would make Chicago’s effort to comply with the consent decree much more difficult.

The original terms of the consent decree called for its reforms to be completed by 2024. In March, city officials and police brass acknowledged they would not meet that deadline and agreed to extend the deadline for the reforms to be fully implemented by an additional three years.

That means whoever wins the Feb. 28 election for mayor and takes office in May will find the consent decree at the top of their to-do list, along with surge of crime and violence that peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic but has yet to recede.

Lightfoot vowed in 2019 to implement “systemic reforms and innovations” to bridge the “persistent, deep divide between city government and the CPD on one side and Chicago’s residents on the other” in order to reduce violence.

Lightfoot said she was uniquely qualified to achieve that massive goal after being appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lead both the Chicago Police Board, charged with disciplining officers, and the task force formed after video of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer triggered widespread outrage and protests.

However, if the goal of the reforms put in place after the video of McDonald’s murder reshaped Chicago politics was to prevent future high-profile police misconduct scandals from roiling the city, they have failed.

The first major police misconduct scandal under Lightfoot involved conduct that occurred before she took office. A national firestorm erupted in December 2020 after CBS 2-TV aired video of officers raiding the home of Anjanette Young, a social worker, by mistake in February 2019.

Footage captured by the officers’ body-worn cameras showed seven male police officers handcuffing a naked Young, who told them 43 times that they were in the wrong home and begged them to let her get dressed.

While Lightfoot first told reporters she first learned of the incident from media reports, emails released by the mayor’s office show she was briefed on the botched raid in November 2019 as officials fought Young’s demands for the footage. While a probe ordered by Lightfoot cleared her of wrongdoing, she has declined to release the results of the full probe conducted by former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

A separate probe by Ferguson found that Lightfoot and the leaders of Chicago Police Department botched nearly every aspect of its response to the protests and unrest triggered by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

During the unrest, Lightfoot raised all but one of the bridges into and out of downtown for the first time in modern Chicago history while imposing a curfew and calling out the Illinois National Guard for the first time since the late 1960s.

In addition, Lightfoot faced widespread condemnation when police officers shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo on March 29, 2021, and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez on March 31, 2021. Both killings triggered widespread protests and demands for change.

Lightfoot no longer puts efforts to reform the police department at the heart of her push to reduce crime and violence. Instead, she has focused her efforts on ways to crackdown on those suspected of violent crimes with longer jail sentences and higher fines. Since the pandemic began, Lightfoot has relentlessly criticized Cook County officials and judges, blaming them for releasing people awaiting trial on charges of violent crime.

An effort to fight crime by giving the city the power to seize the assets of gangs and adult gang leaders faltered amid a wall of opposition from progressive members of the City Council, despite efforts by Lightfoot to muscle it through the City Council.

A similar deluge of criticism greeted Lightfoot’s plan to expand and extend the city’s curfew for teens, prompted by the murder of a 16-year-old in Millennium Park. Even though Lightfoot won City Council support for the plan, the new enforcement power was used by police only four times between May 17 and Aug. 18, according to data obtained by WTTW News.

Criticism From All Sides

U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García’s public safety plan blasted Lightfoot for allowing compliance with the consent decree to “fall far behind schedule.”

García’s campaign urged reporters to examine Lightfoot’s record of compliance with the consent decree, which he said would serve as the “floor” for reform efforts if he is elected.

“We know that building trust with the community is the path to increasing arrests and convictions for homicides,” García wrote in his plan. “We know that constitutional policing is effective policing, and we know that a restored CPD and vibrant community violence prevention are two sides of the same coin we need to build safe and healthy communities.”

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson’s public safety plan vows to “immediately enact” the consent decree, hammering Lightfoot for missing “every meaningful deadline.”

“We must move quickly, and even request permission from the federal court to modify the consent decree’s terms to include the creation of proven, effective diversion programs, like a pre-arrest diversion program that will allow officers to divert people from the formal justice system, a community mediation program that will allow community members to address disputes without relying on police, and the development of a citation program that will allow officers to give tickets — but not arrest people — for quality of life and other minor offenses,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson said he would also fire any Chicago officer affiliated with far-right extremist groups, including the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. While Inspector General Deborah Witzburg urged Brown to fire an officer who lied about his ties to the Proud Boys, according to the results of a probe, as well as an officer who admitted being a member of the Oath Keepers, Lightfoot has refused to terminate either officer and defended the department’s investigations.

“This is a threat to our public safety and obliterates trust with the communities’ officers are sworn to serve,” Johnson said.

Lightfoot’s 2019 public safety plan vowed to fire officers who mislead investigators or make false claims during official investigations, saying “lying is a cancer and will destroy the integrity and legitimacy of policing.”

While García, Johnson and other progressive candidates have challenged the mayor’s record from the left, Lightfoot has also faced criticism from the two conservative candidates in the race, Willie Wilson and Paul Vallas.

Both Vallas and Wilson have vowed “take the handcuffs off” of Chicago police officers, echoing language used by those who oppose the changes required by the consent decree, even though the city must comply with the reforms or face sanctions from a federal court.

Wilson said if someone flees from the police, officers should be allowed to “to chase them down, and hunt them down like a rabbit.”

Vallas has also called the department’s policy limiting foot pursuits “convoluted” and an overreaction to “one incident.” The policy was drafted after officers shot Toledo and Alvarez.

Even if Vallas was elected mayor, Vallas would not have the power to alter that policy, which was approved by the independent monitoring team, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the federal judge overseeing the implementation of the consent decree.

While Vallas said his plan could be achieved while complying with the consent decree, his statements echo those of John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7, who has repeatedly blasted the federal court order as an impediment to public safety.

Vallas, who has been endorsed by the police union and campaigned with Vallas, served as an unpaid adviser to the union during contract negotiations in 2021.

Vallas said the consent decree is too often used as “an excuse” to avoid “proactive policing.”

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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