Lightfoot Says Law Enforcement Should Look Into Any Potential Sex Crimes At Park District

Welles Park pool
The Welles Park pool in Lincoln Square is part of the Chicago Park District. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Welles Park pool
The Welles Park pool in Lincoln Square is part of the Chicago Park District. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lightfoot Says Law Enforcement Should Look Into Any Potential Sex Crimes At Park District

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday called on the Chicago Park District to contact law-enforcement agencies about any potential sex crimes found by an ongoing internal investigation of city lifeguards.

Lightfoot responded to a story published Tuesday by WBEZ, which disclosed the park district inspector general’s long-running, “broad investigation” into complaints that dozens of workers in the Aquatics Department regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” – sometimes against minors working at Chicago’s pools and beaches.

Confidential reports obtained recently by WBEZ show investigators have gathered evidence corroborating accusations against at least three male lifeguards for sexual assault, harassment or retaliatory threats against their subordinates – including one incident involving the sexual assault and attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl.

The park district’s watchdog says its investigation is “wide-ranging, comprehensive and robust,” with more reports to come.

“Where appropriate, I’ve urged them to make referrals to the appropriate criminal law enforcement authorities,” Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

When asked if police had been contacted by the park district, the mayor replied, “I don’t have specifics on that, but I’m urging them to do that if the investigation determines that criminal conduct has taken place.”

According to documents, investigators have told the park district’s board of two cases where they found “detailed, credible and corroborated testimonial evidence” of criminal sexual abuse and sexual assault by lifeguards.

In the case where a lifeguard allegedly sexually assaulted and tried to rape a 16-year-old subordinate, investigators wrote “that it is more likely than not that [an experienced lifeguard] violated Illinois criminal law with his actions against a rookie female lifeguard at North Avenue Beach.”

And investigators made clear they are continuing to conduct a “larger” review into allegations of “numerous incidents” of serious misconduct, including “criminal acts.”

Lightfoot said there would be no tolerance for such actions but declined to divulge more details that she said she’s been given of the probe.

“I’m following the developments quite closely,” the mayor said. “I’ve made it very clear they need to get to the bottom of this — get to it quickly.”

None of the lifeguards named in the inspector general’s reports have been charged with crimes. Park district officials have not said whether they have contacted law enforcement about the allegations.

The investigation became public as the park district prepared to re-open beaches and pools that were largely closed because of the coronavirus pandemic — and as officials advertised for a new crop of lifeguards.

Asked what her message would be to would-be applicants and other lifeguards, Lightfoot said the park district is already planning on providing “additional training, particularly around what needs to happen in the workplace to make it safer for everyone”

The mayor added, “We have to create an environment where everyone is safe.”

In a statement to WBEZ, park district officials said they have “recently partnered with an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the healing and empowerment of sexual assault survivors.”

On Tuesday, hours after the story about the investigation was published, the park district’s top official, Michael Kelly, sent an email to all employees, with a message particularly for those who have experienced or witnessed misconduct: “I urge you to say something.”

In the email from Kelly, which was obtained by WBEZ, he also complained about the story on the investigation, writing, “The media outlet’s actions of prematurely publishing the information was [sic] inappropriate.”

Until this week, the investigation had dragged on in secret for more than a year. In the documents obtained by WBEZ, the inspector general’s office said a lack of resources for investigating such problems was among the reasons why it has taken this long.

Kelly received a complaint from a former lifeguard in early February 2020. But the matter was only forwarded to the inspector general to begin the probe about six weeks later, in late March 2020. By then, Lightfoot’s office had received and forwarded a second letter to the park district, from another former lifeguard who said she was sexually assaulted by a superior when she was 17.

The complainant said her experience was part of “a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District — from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape.”

“I have both heard and witnessed more horrifying stories about employees experiencing sexual violence,” the woman wrote, according to the documents from the inspector general’s investigation.

“It is a toxic environment.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos or send him news tips to investigations@wbez.org.