Lightfoot’s long, complicated record on policing easy to distort

The mayoral candidate’s reformist persona is being challenged by hardline police accountability activists.

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Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Lori Lightfoot speaks at a public forum about replacing the Independent Police Review Authority with a new police accountability agency at Little Village High School on Aug. 11, 2016.

Lori Lightfoot emerged into public prominence as a police reformer. So it’s interesting that some police accountability activists want nothing to do with her mayoral candidacy.

Some of this has to do with political ideology. Lightfoot has a background in law enforcement and says she considers constitutional, respectful policing a key to public safety. Some of her opponents are police abolitionists and say they would never support a former prosecutor.

Obviously, Lightfoot has a long record — both in law enforcement and in police accountability agencies — which merits scrutiny. But much of the criticism directed at her is based on distortions of her record.

Lightfoot was chief administrator of the police department’s Office of Professional Standards from mid-2002 to late 2004, part of a long period when OPS sustained very few civilian complaints of police misconduct.

Part of the problem, Lightfoot told me in December, was that OPS wasn’t independent of the police department and recommendations had to be approved by the superintendent.

“I had to work within this very byzantine and hostile environment, because most officers, including senior members, believed that OPS was just there to basically ruin the career of police officers.” Her staff included many “patronage hires” who “were not really supportive of the mission,” she said.

When Lightfoot recommended that Officer Alvin Weems be fired after he shot an unarmed man in the head at the 95th Street Red Line station, Supt. Phil Cline overruled her recommendation.

Lightfoot said she brought forward numerous recommendations that officers be fired for violating Rule 14, which prohibits giving false statements in an investigation — the first time OPS did so, according to her. And she began an effort to establish a program to track patterns of misconduct, though it wasn’t carried through after she left.

Her public statements at the time were strongly supportive of the police department and its accountability system. And there are probably a good number of officers like Raymond Piwnicki, who escaped discipline for dozens of civilian complaints during Lightfoot’s time at OPS and who have gone on to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements.

But there are many distortions in critics’ comments on social media — so much so that the campaign has posted a fact sheet to address some of them. One canard is that she was disciplined for lying to a judge in order to facilitate a deportation. That’s cited as grounds for doubting her promise to close loopholes in the city’s Welcoming City Ordinance in order to bar cooperation with immigration authorities. The case — in which Lightfoot was acting at the direction of supervisors and received a judicial reprimand but no suspension — did not in fact involve the deportation of an undocumented immigrant but rather the extradition of a man who had fled Norway after being convicted of fraud. That’s a very different thing.

The Chicago Tribune has reported that in her first days at OPS, Lightfoot reversed a finding that the fatal shooting of Robert Washington by Officer Phyllis Clinkscales was unjustified. Lightfoot has suggested that report is misleading. “The superintendent rejected the finding that it was an unjustified shooting, so by the time this case got back to me, there was very little I could do other than try to salvage a 30-day suspension of Clinkscales, which is what I supported,” she said this week. She added, “The notion that someone would cavalierly throw around the idea that I would cover up a murder is outrageous and offensive.”

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There are two other cases Lightfoot handled in private practice on behalf of the city or police officers that are held against her by her critics. One involves Paul Powers, an officer who was acquitted of aggravated battery charges resulting from a 2006 brawl at the Jefferson Tap in the West Loop. Critics say video showed Powers beating bar patrons, but security cameras seem to have caught other officers, not Powers, attacking patrons inside and outside the bar. A subsequent fight or assault in the bar’s entryway wasn’t captured on video, and Lightfoot said Powers wasn’t inside the vestibule during that incident.

“Paul Powers’ father was a friend of mine, someone that I knew from the police department, Bill Powers,” Lightfoot told me in December. “Good guy. He retired and within a few months was diagnosed with lung cancer and died.” In a pre-Christmas gathering, during a discussion of holiday plans, she said, Paul Powers “became emotional and started crying.”

She said a group of patrons “started mocking him and provoking him” and later “started to be physically aggressive.” That group of four businessmen maintained they were attacked without provocation, and prosecutors said there was no evidence of taunting. The video seems to show officers on the offense.

Powers and two other officers were acquitted of aggravated battery in a bench trial in 2009. Three years later a federal civil jury cleared Powers but ordered four other officers to pay over $30,000 in damages to the businessmen. “We won because there was videotape evidence that demonstrated that these guys were making up the allegations against my client,” Lightfoot said.

Then there’s the case of Christina Eilman, a young woman who was abducted and gravely injured after being released from a police station in the midst of the mental health crisis. Lightfoot, who represented the city in a lawsuit brought by Eilman’s family, “defended” the police and “lost” the case, according to her critics. According to her campaign, the case had dragged on for six years and was settled within weeks after Lightfoot came on as lead attorney. It looks like she advised the city they didn’t have a case and had better settle.

Critics charge that as president of the police board, Lightfoot has protected officers accused of misconduct. They say she delayed firing Officer Dante Servin for the 2012 shooting death of Rekia Boyd in order to allow him to keep his pension, and that she’s disrespected family members of victims of police violence.

Before Lightfoot, the board routinely rejected recommendations that officers be fired. After she took over, the rate at which officers were fired nearly doubled. In 2016, not a single officer was cleared by the board.

Servin’s acquittal on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in April 2015 was a travesty of justice, and protesters began appearing at police board meetings demanding that Servin be fired. But the matter wasn’t before the board for several months, not until an internal investigation recommended Servin be fired and a review by the superintendent endorsed the recommendation. Servin resigned the day before a police board hearing was scheduled, but the idea that Lightfoot “allowed” Servin to resign is quite a stretch — he could have resigned at any point that he decided the likely outcome looked bad for him.

As for the charge that Lightfoot disrespected Boyd’s relatives, you can view this video and decide for yourself. It doesn’t look that way to me. Others will surely disagree, but it looks to me like she is trying to run a meeting and let people have their say — and giving them  a good bit of leeway.

At the police board, and perhaps to some extent at OPS, Lightfoot began to make improvements in the accountability system, but from my perspective it was after she chaired the Police Accountability Task Force that she emerged as a leading voice for reform. Yes, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her, but by all accounts he was unhappy with the report that resulted. That report validated “the view that the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” It described “an utter lack of a culture of accountability” in CPD and a pervasive code of silence enabled by police contracts.

The findings were strong and Lightfoot advocated for them forcefully. She repeatedly pointed out that Emanuel had ignored many of the report’s recommendations, pushed back when he tried to cut a deal with the Trump Justice Department and insisted that a new investigative agency have budgetary independence. She backed community calls for contract reforms — largely based on the task force report’s recommendations — and a proposal for a community oversight board with the power to fire the superintendent.

There are other distortions out there as well: some unions are circulating a clip where Lightfoot promises to”stand up to unions” without explaining that she was talking about negotiating police union contracts. When she discussed the need for more conversation about Emanuel’s police academy and described a range of options, she was inaccurately attacked for wanting to turn 38 vacant schools into mini-police academies.

These criticisms and distortions don’t seem to have affected Lightfoot’s standing in the race, partly because her opponent has serious credibility issues of her own and partly because Lightfoot comes across to the general public as a fighter and a reformer.

Some of her critics are never going to support her. But advocates for justice shouldn’t sacrifice truth in its pursuit.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Christina Eilman had been killed.