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Chicago Mayor Promised Police Reform. What’s Happened?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged police reform while campaigning for mayor, but two years later and the Chicago Police Department looks much as it did before she took office. Many are upset with the lack of change.

(TNS) — Mayor Lori Lightfoot fueled her political ascent with promises to reform policing, but after two years under her guidance the Chicago Police Department’s present looks much like its past.

Black and Latino people account for more than 9 out of 10 arrests and uses of force by police, a disparity just as pronounced as it was under Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Tribune found.

The percentage of Black cops is about the same as it’s been — just over 20 percent — despite Lightfoot’s calls to diversify the police force.

And while Lightfoot promised “full and swift compliance” with a court order designed to force officers to treat people better, the city has failed to live up to both bedrock requirements and those observers call “low-hanging fruit.”

Some training efforts focus too much on showing cops how to use weapons and not enough on how to avoid using force, the court reform watchdog recently concluded. City Hall has yet to enact new rules aimed at improving relations with transgender people and religious communities, groups that have complained of police mistreatment.

Even beyond the court-overseen consent decree, the mayor has failed to fulfill promises she made as a candidate and recommendations she pushed as the head of Emanuel’s police reform task force, and she’s pushed back on attempts to hold her to them.

There are consequences for delaying changes to a Police Department with a lengthy history of hurting and killing Black and Latino people. For nearly two years, the Lightfoot administration neglected to act on her calls for a policy on foot pursuits by officers, so the city didn’t have one when police chased and then fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez over a three-day span in late March.

Lightfoot’s spotty record on a signature issue of her political career has led activists and advocates for change to conclude that she either lacks political will or was only masquerading as a progressive reformer. Her tenure so far has led to comparisons to Emanuel, an unloved figure in progressive circles who offered only a wavering commitment to transforming the Police Department.

“Nothing has changed,” said Aislinn Pulley, a founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago. “I would say that Lori is on par with Rahm, and that really is not a compliment. It’s a condemnation.”

City Hall and police officials declined requests for interviews with Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown, and did not answer written questions or issue any statements before this story was published online Thursday.

Later, City Hall spokesman Alexander Murphy emailed a host of points that did not directly address the questions and included a statement that said, “Since 2019, Mayor Lightfoot has made real progress toward police reform and accountability.”

Murphy noted that the Police Department now has an Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform. He also cited the city’s recent performance on fulfilling consent decree requirements, which improved on its past record.

Most significantly, Murphy pointed out that Lightfoot last month moved toward fulfilling a campaign vow by unveiling her long-delayed plan for civilian oversight of the Police Department. On Friday, however, the mayor withdrew her plan during a City Council hearing while a competing proposal from grassroots groups was blocked by pro-police aldermen and mayoral allies.

Still, her administration remains far from making good on many of the promises of her candidacy. Eddie Johnson, Lightfoot’s police superintendent before he was fired amid a scandal in late 2019, said it was hard to balance reforms that depend on retraining cops with keeping them on the street in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

He accepted some responsibility for failing to push harder to fulfill the consent decree on schedule but noted the challenge of overhauling the country’s second largest city police department.

“That’s like turning the Titanic, man, in the Chicago River. That takes some doing,” he said.

Police union officials and others have suggested that reforming the department would lead to out-of-control crime, but Lightfoot and Brown have struggled to contain surging violence even as they made limited progress toward reform. Both shootings and homicides were up by 50 percent in 2020 over the previous year. So far, this year has been even more violent, with shootings up 18 percent over the same period in 2020 and homicides up 5 percent, according to police statistics.

As a candidate, Lightfoot rejected the idea that the city can either overhaul the Police Department or keep people safe, calling that a “false dichotomy” and pledging to take on both challenges.

Racial Inequities Persist

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who once ran a Police Department disciplinary agency, emerged as a force in Chicago politics during Emanuel’s response to the 2015 release of video of white Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.

Amid the damaging scandal, Emanuel named Lightfoot, then his Police Board chair, to lead his Police Accountability Task Force. A couple of years later, she made transforming the department a major theme of her candidacy.

“As mayor, I will take on this challenge and work to build a Chicago Police Department that will be best in class in the nation,” she said in a campaign social media post.

Efforts at changing the department have been premised on its history of policing white neighborhoods and communities of color differently. The U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a 2017 report that “CPD’s pattern or practice of unreasonable force and systemic deficiencies fall heaviest on the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago.”

In a campaign position paper, Lightfoot noted the racial disparities and wrote, “It is no wonder then that deep divisions exist between CPD and communities of color. ... I am committed to continuing work to bridge this divide.”

And yet Chicago police continue to use force against and arrest people of color — particularly Black people — in wild disproportion to white people.

Uses of force have declined steadily over the last decade, from around 7,300 in 2011 to about half of that last year. But use of force reports, which describe actions that range from shootings to physical takedowns by cops, for years have shown police using force against Black or Hispanic people more than 90 percent of the time. The first years of the Lightfoot administration were no different.

Police uses of force were against Black or Hispanic people 93.2 percent of the time between Lightfoot’s inauguration in May 2019 and mid-January, among cases in which race or ethnicity was included, the Tribune found in an analysis of city data. That’s close to the rate of 92.9 percent in 2018, the last full year of the Emanuel administration, and it’s been at least 90 percent or higher for much of the last decade.

To put those numbers in perspective, Black, Hispanic people and white people each make up roughly 30 percent of the city’s population.

The disparity was most pronounced for African Americans, as police during Lightfoot’s tenure used force against Black people nearly 13 times for every time they reported using it against a white person.

Shootings by police also have dropped precipitously over the years, from 106 in 2011 to 36 in 2020, according to CPD data. Those totals include cases where people were hit as well as where officers missed.

But even as shootings have dwindled, officers have almost exclusively shot or shot at Black or Hispanic people — at least 94.9 percent of the time in all but one of the last 10 years. Between Lightfoot’s inauguration and early January, the data shows every shooting by police involved Black or Hispanic people, though 4 percent of records didn’t include race or ethnicity.

Likewise, arrests have trended downward over a decade, from more than 151,000 in 2011 to about 90,000 in 2019. Then last year, arrests fells to roughly 52,000 as pandemic restrictions shuttered schools, slowed business and kept many inside.

Still, from Lightfoot’s inauguration in 2019 through early March, police arrested about nine Black people for every white person. Just over 91 percent of people arrested during that period were Black (73.7 percent) or Hispanic (17.6 percent). That tracks with yearly totals of the last decade.

In a city that relies almost entirely on police to combat crime, it’s perhaps predictable that law enforcement activity would concentrate in Black and Latino neighborhoods that often have more poverty and violence following decades of disinvestment and neglect. Department officials sometimes have suggested that drastic racial disparities are the result of police fighting crime where it exists.

Past reporting, however, suggests that Chicago police also have selectively enforced the law. For example, police have given far more bicycle tickets in mostly Black neighborhoods than they did in white areas where cycling is popular. Numerous studies have shown that Chicago police were far more likely to search the vehicles of Black and Latino drivers during traffic stops, even though police were less likely to find contraband than they were in searches of white drivers.

Attorneys for the activists involved in court-overseen reforms said disparities remain extreme because police still flood Black and Latino neighborhoods and use heavy-handed tactics against people of color. The lawyers said they didn’t expect Lightfoot would quickly fix all of the department’s problems, but contend that the drastic imbalances show she has not changed the city’s approach to fighting crime or the department’s culture. They noted that Brown responded to surging violence last year by turning to a familiar tool: a citywide unit tasked with flooding violent neighborhoods.

“It is a powerful indicator ... that this is the same Chicago Police Department that needed to be under a federal consent decree,” said attorney Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago law school. “The reason why you’re not even seeing improvement, and significant improvement, is that that same department that’s under a consent decree is still fighting, resisting change and still continues to deny the need for change.”

Lightfoot also said she’d take aim at racial imbalances in the department’s ranks. Some research has cast doubt on the idea that adding police officers of color can make a significant difference. Still, candidate Lightfoot said she would appoint a “chief diversity officer” for the force, and she wrote that the department should “do more to ensure that minority candidates are admitted into the police academy, which is an area where CPD continues to lag behind other police departments.”

Nearly three years later, the department has no chief diversity officer. And as of February, Black officers made up about 20.3 percent of the force — roughly half a percentage point lower than during the last two years of the Emanuel administration. White people remained over-represented relative to the city’s population, making up 47.4 percent of the department. The force has had a small rise in the percentage of Hispanic officers, from 25.8 percent three years ago to 28.5 percent this year.

While Brown and several others at the top of the department are Black, white people made up 67.8 percent of officers ranked at sergeant or above earlier this year; Black people were about 14.2 percent of the brass, just under the 15 percent figure from three years ago.

The Police Department’s data comes with caveats. The numbers don’t have racial or ethnic information for a small percentage of people arrested or targeted by force — or some police officers — making it difficult to assess the meaning of small changes year over year.

Still, the city watchdog’s data analysis site and the Police Department’s sporadic annual reports track with the Tribune’s findings on racial disparities.

Not Fulfilling Court Order

Politicians said the consent decree enacted in early 2019 would be different from the previous failed attempts to change the department. It is, after all, a court order the city is legally obligated to follow.

Lightfoot advocated for the decree for years before she won responsibility for putting changes in place. She blasted Emanuel in 2016 after he wavered on the need for a court order. As the plan was in the works, Lightfoot wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who pushed Emanuel for reforms. Lightfoot criticized the “very long lead times throughout the document for implementing the kind of fundamental changes that are needed in the department.”

By the end of last year, however, the Police Department had missed 69 percent of its deadlines and failed to clear even the lowest bar of achievement for 44 percent of the requirements the court’s watchdog has examined.

That slow progress has left the city behind on fixing foundational problems.

Improving training, for example, is a cornerstone of the court order, reflecting the fact that the Justice Department found that recruit and in-service training were broken — sometimes to a comical degree. Federal officials wrote that a 35-year-old video on deadly force was being shown to recruits who at least occasionally slept in class. Cops generally got paltry training after leaving the academy.

Maggie Hickey, the court-appointed monitor responsible for determining whether the department is improving, has complimented some of the force’s new training. But she also has voiced reservations. In March, she wrote that in-service training on use of force continued to skimp on showing how to treat people fairly, defuse confrontations and avoid using force — concepts at the heart of the consent decree.

“The amount of time devoted to impartial policing, procedural justice, and crisis de-escalation is very limited, as the focus remains on traditional tasks associated with law enforcement (e.g., how to use firearms, OC spray, batons, Tasers, and handcuffs),” she wrote. “The CPD must pay more attention to de-escalation and the prevention of force through tactics and interpersonal communication skills than its current efforts. The CPD should not treat these interpersonal skills as merely peripheral add-ons.”

Hickey and Inspector General Joseph Ferguson also found a host of problems related to the city’s investigations of officers accused of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault.

Ferguson’s office is supposed to review the quality of the investigations, but complained that it struggled to get city disciplinary authorities to even offer an accurate, complete list of sexual misconduct investigations in 2019 and 2020. Deborah Witzburg, the office’s deputy for public safety, wrote in December that she eventually identified 20 investigations, but files were missing documentation of the steps investigators took and it was unclear in many cases whether the possibility of criminal prosecution was considered. That echoes the past of a police disciplinary system long known for shoddy investigations.

Investigating sexual misconduct allegations by police is not an idle matter — the report noted that disciplinary authorities sustained two allegations of sexual assault by officers from 2019 and 2020.

Hickey credited the department with drafting a policy prohibiting sexual misconduct, and she wrote that the department was “poised to enhance” its tracking of information on investigations.

Still, Lightfoot also has not addressed a more fundamental issue. The consent decree calls for transferring more sexual misconduct investigations from the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs to the independent Civilian Office of Police Accountability. But that hasn’t happened.

Having officers handle sexual misconduct allegations against colleagues “violates everything we know about effective oversight,” said Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law school professor who represents activist groups in the consent decree.

Advocates also are troubled the department hasn’t met requirements to make new rules on how to treat particular groups.

Those include religious communities. In 2019, the city paid $160,000 to settle a lawsuit from a Muslim woman who alleged officers profiled her as a terrorist, threw her down, tore off her headscarf and veil, and took her to a police station to strip search her. Hickey wrote that the department had taken community feedback on the department’s treatment of religious groups but not drafted a policy.

Police repeatedly have been accused of mistreating and disrespecting transgender people. The department recently drafted a policy on interactions with transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming people, but has yet to enact it — nearly two years after the consent decree deadline to do so.

Stephanie Skora, associate executive director of Brave Space Alliance, a South Side LGBTQ center, said her organization’s clients face frequent harassment by Chicago police. Skora, a trans woman, said her group has worked with the city on developing the new rules but doesn’t think Lightfoot cares much about that community. Skora said she doesn’t believe a policy will change the department’s hostility toward marginalized people.

“It’s going to be a while before any policy change, this one in particular, has any impact,” she said. “We expect business as usual, and if the treatment of trans individuals improves, we’ll be delightfully surprised.”

Asked about the city’s slow progress on the consent decree, former Superintendent Johnson told the Tribune that turnover in City Hall and the Police Department made it hard to stay on track. Johnson said he could have done more to keep pace but added that the city agreed to overly ambitious deadlines. He said the kind of training required is hard to pull off when officers are needed on the streets.

“If somebody’s district is blowing up in terms of violent crime, you know, you have to give them the bandwidth to be able to deal with that,” he said.

Aside from those manpower commitments, the coronavirus pandemic added to the challenge of making reforms during the last 16 months, with training halted at one point.

Despite City’s Hall’s failings on the court order, Lightfoot’s staff have tried to put a positive spin on the work, as seen in some of the thousands of city emails stolen and recently published by hackers.

In early August — weeks after Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s lawyers blasted the city’s slow movement on reform — Lightfoot staffers workshopped materials designed to highlight the department’s progress. Then-Law Department spokeswoman Kathleen Fieweger encouraged her colleagues to downplay deadlines, calling them “an artificial construct that has no bearing on the most significant efforts going on.”

“I would prefer and would highly recommend trying to change the whole narrative away from this kind of discussion,” she wrote.

On the other hand, one of the city’s top lawyers, Tyeesha Dixon, moved to tone down a declaration in a March 2020 news release saying the city had made “significant progress” on the decree.

“My lawyer hat is on, and ‘significant’ is a stretch,” she wrote.

Consequences on the Street

Lightfoot’s failure to make policy changes she embraced as a police reform advocate has had real-world repercussions. Two glaring examples: Her administration didn’t quickly enact a foot-pursuit policy or put in place her task force’s recommendation of a rule that people get a phone call within an hour of being arrested.

Foot pursuits have long been known to lead to shootings by police. In 2016, the Tribune reported that foot chases preceded more than a third of shootings during the previous five years. Months later, the Justice Department wrote that it found “officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits, and that these foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone — including unarmed individuals.”

As a mayoral candidate, Lightfoot was clear about her position. In 2018, she wrote that “CPD needs a full foot pursuit policy now.” During a campaign news conference reacting to a draft of the consent decree, Lightfoot said: “We can’t wait until 2021. The Department of Justice specifically said in its report that the foot pursuit policy has to be in place because this is one of the most dangerous activities that Chicago police officers engage in.”

That urgency wasn’t evident during most of her first two years in office. In October 2019, lawyers for activist groups sent the city’s attorneys a letter calling for rules on foot chases. The letter echoed the mayor’s previous words: “Given the risks attendant to CPD’s continued use of dangerous foot pursuits, the implementation of an effective CPD training bulletin and policy must occur as soon as possible.”

The Police Department issued advice to cops on foot pursuits but made no rules.

Then in April, the city released video of two fatal shootings by officers after foot chases. Thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo dropped a gun just before the officer fired; and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez was running away with a gun before he was shot.

Late last month, the Police Department finally issued temporary rules designed to generally discourage officers from chasing people suspected of minor crimes and to consider the potential dangers to themselves, those they might pursue and the public. The rules are set to become permanent in September after the department hears community feedback.

Latayshia Shaw voiced frustration that Lightfoot didn’t move sooner despite the many examples of fatal shootings following foot pursuits. Maurice Granton, 24, the father of Shaw’s two children, was shot and killed by a Chicago cop in 2018 following a pursuit police reports said was spurred by “hand-to-hand” drug deals in Bronzeville.

Granton ran from one officer through a vacant lot and appeared to be trying to climb a fence just before he was shot by Officer Sheldon Thrasher, who was on the other side.

Thrasher later said he thought Granton “might have” fired at him first, and a body camera picked up the sound of a gunshot, according to police reports. Thrasher also said he saw Granton carrying a gun, and police found one at the scene.

But Thrasher’s body camera showed that Granton’s hands were empty as he leapt toward the fence. City officials haven’t ruled on whether Thrasher will face discipline.

As a candidate, Lightfoot cited Granton’s shooting, saying it “underscores the urgency, right now, of the department adopting a fulsome general order on foot pursuit policy.”

Shaw, who is suing the city, said Lightfoot should have quickly made good on her recommendation.

“(The shooting) was uncalled for,” she said. “He was trying to get away. You just wanna kill someone because they’re running away from you?”

Lightfoot also didn’t act on the 2016 recommendation of her reform task force that anyone arrested gets a phone call within an hour. Last summer, with no such rule in place, the city was deluged with complaints of people being held “incommunicado” following arrests at Chicago protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Those complaints were among the many allegations of abuse stemming from a police response that the inspector general’s office described as plagued by “confusion and lack of coordination.”

Last year, 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston pushed an ordinance that would have set a one-hour deadline “unless exceptional circumstances exist.” That’s faster than the three-hour statewide limit lawmakers passed as part of a package of criminal justice reforms.

But Lightfoot’s administration floated a looser proposal that calls on officers to allow phone calls within a “reasonable period.” Hairston, whose ordinance hasn’t gone anywhere, told the Tribune she still favors a one-hour rule and voiced frustration that the Police Department pushed back on a time limit and Lightfoot’s administration supported that position.

“This notion where the Police Department has to consent just makes absolutely no sense, coming from a Police Department that has failed of follow any regulations, so much so that we are under a consent decree, also which they have not followed,” she said.

After the Floyd protests, the Cook County public defender’s office and activist groups sued to try to hold the city to a one-hour standard. The Lightfoot administration hired private attorneys to seek to dismiss the lawsuit, which is pending.

Hacked emails showed that high-ranking city lawyer Caryn Jacobs — then days away from leaving City Hall alongside her boss in December following a scandal over a botched police raid — called the one-hour standard “arbitrary.”


A leader of one of the groups suing Lightfoot called her “disingenuous.” Police arrested Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe Collective on a disorderly conduct charge during a protest after Floyd’s death, and Williams said he was held at South Side police station for six hours without being able to speak with a lawyer. Prosecutors later dropped the charge.

Williams distrusted Lightfoot before her election, and her first two years in office have strengthened that feeling.

“I really expected her to be terrible,” he said. “I think what has been worse is that it has been less tactful than I expected. ... What it seems like is that it has been more brazen and more vulgar than I expected.”

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