In May 2018, when Lori Lightfoot quit her job as president of the Police Board and announced her candidacy for mayor, she intended to run as a police reformer.
At the time, Lightfoot's No. 1 opponent was Rahm Emanuel, who'd hired law-and-order top cop Garry McCarthy and covered up the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting. Compared to Emanuel, it wasn’t hard to look like a liberal on policing.
That September, I had an hour-long conversation with Lightfoot about police issues. She condemned McCarthy for bringing stop-and-frisk policing to Chicago. She called Emanuel’s proposed Police and Fire Training Academy in West Garfield Park "not thoughtful" and "a huge investment in a really, really poor neighborhood that is not planned to spur economic development." She promised to make Chicago cops undergo 20 hours of annual training in tech advances and procedural justice, and praised the federal consent decree that stemmed from McDondald's killing. Finally, she said the solution to Chicago's 19 percent murder rate was to force white detectives to get out from behind their desks and form relationships in the neighborhoods where they investigate crime.
“We’ve got to treat the homicide rate as a public health crisis," Lightfoot told me. "We’ve got to [institute] real measures to bring investment and economic developments to these neighborhoods. We've got to stop treating black and brown folks like they're expendable. A militarized response to the violence isn’t what people want, and more to the point, it’s not effective.”
Two years later, Lightfoot is mayor. Everything changes when you become the boss. Last weekend, Lightfoot called in the Illinois National Guard to deal with protests and looting after the police killing of George Floyd — the very definition of a militarized response. She also hired 500 private security officers to patrol businesses on the South and West sides.
Most significantly, Lightfoot's police reform stance suddenly looks retrograde. In the wake of Floyd’s death, many urban politicians are deciding that the traditional model of policing is beyond reform. The growing consensus: that granting a monopoly on lethal force to an arm of the government will inevitably lead to more killings of innocent citizens.
Policing the police is a millennia-old issue. The Roman satirist Juvenal posed the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" — “Who guards the guardians?” Boogie Down Productions asked, “Who Protects Us From You?”
In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the City Council voted Sunday to defund and dismantle the police department, vowing “to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe,” according to the council president. New York and Los Angeles are also cutting funding to their departments.
Here in Chicago, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in a #DEFUNDCPD rally at Union Park on Saturday, demanding a reduction of the Chicago Police Department’s $1.78 billion budget, which accounts for 40 percent of the city's general fund. 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez, who supports the movement, tweeted that he'd rather see the city “[i]nvest in proactive public safety measures like mental health, substance abuse help, education, fighting food insecurity, etc.”
Lightfoot, though, has rebuffed calls to reduce the police budget and the department's presence around Chicago. Asked whether she'd follow Minneapolis’s lead by removing police from public schools, she responded, “Yeah, we’re not gonna do that. Unfortunately, we need security in our schools.”
Chicago, of course, is not Minneapolis, or even New York or Los Angeles. Minneapolis had 48 murders in 2019, a homicide rate of 10.9 per 100,000 residents; Chicago had 490, for a rate of 18.8. As the Sun-Times reported, 18 people were killed on May 31, making it “the single most violent day in Chicago in six decades.”
“In talking to people all over the city about the events of this week, what I’ve heard from the people in neighborhoods is that they want more police protection, not less,” Lightfoot said at a Friday press conference.
Lightfoot had a fraught relationship with progressives even before she was elected mayor, to the degree that “Lori is a cop” became a popular refrain among those suspicious of her background as a prosecutor. Once Lightfoot was in office, her own police review board, the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, which will consist of citizen boards appointed by the mayor, disappointed activists, who want an elected police oversight body with the power to fire the superintendent.
Any changes Lightfoot makes to policing will be incremental, not fundamental. In last week’s State of the City address, she promised to finally implement measures she proposed as head of the Police Accountability Task Force, which was supposed to reform the department after the Laquan McDonald shooting. Among the changes: “a real officer wellness program that provides support for officers in crisis,” “mandating crisis intervention and procedural justice training for all officers," and “establishing a new recruit program on police-community relations and community policing.”
None of those measures are going to satisfy the protesters marching in George Floyd’s name. The cops aren’t going to like them, either. The new Fraternal Order of Police president, John Catanzara, is an outspoken opponent of the consent decree. Moreover, Chicago cops don't seem to think much of Lightfoot in general. The Second City Cop blog disparagingly refers to her as “Groot,” the Guardians of the Galaxy character who its anonymous cop proprietor says she resembles.
On this issue, Lightfoot is caught between two constituencies who are never happy with any mayor: progressives, and the police. She has to hope the majority of Chicagoans are somewhere in the middle.