When Lori Lightfoot took over as the president of the Chicago Police Board a little over a year ago, the body was facing scrutiny on finding police officers culpable for abuse of power. However, as a Chicago Sun-Times report found earlier this week, the board has gotten tougher on officers on her watch.
Morning Shift’s Jennifer White spoke with CPB President Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday about keeping police accountable in Chicago.
According to the Sun-Times, officer firings are up and suspensions are down. How should we look at that information?
We take each case [according to its] merits. We didn’t come in with a particular objective to do one thing or another. Part of what my work that I did when I started as the president of the Police Board is really to look at the entirety of our process — from the quality of the charges that were being brought, the evidence that was being presented in our cases, frankly looking at individual board members and seeing where we needed to look more closely at our understanding of certain police rules and regulations and general orders. Because there’s a lot that goes into these cases before they actually get presented to the board. And I wanted to make sure that the various inputs that we could control — that we were operating at the highest level possible so that frankly we had the most fulsome record for the board to make the best decisions possible in individual cases.
Historically the Police Board handled a range of proposed cases, and particularly what I’ll call lower-level suspension cases. Those cases would come to the Police Board, [we would] review the cold paper record, and then make a recommendation. With the last collective bargaining agreement those cases have now been swept away from the Police Board’s jurisdiction, so we’re really now just focused on the most serious cases. I think that makes a big difference.
In your role as president of CPB, do you look at your approach to dealing with these cases as an opportunity to set a standard for what’s expected in terms of police behavior?
Yes, for sure. But let me expand the question a little bit. I believe that the Chicago Police Board speaks its values through its written decisions. We are sending a message about what we believe is appropriate conduct — the values and responsibilities that go with the privilege of being a Chicago police officer — every single time that we rule on a case. And I’m conscious of the fact that our decisions reverberate much more beyond the individual officers that might be involved in a case. We’re sending directives and guidance to the entire department, the line police officers, the supervisors that are in charge, and obviously the brass if you will — the leaders of the Police Department.
Of course we do take every single case seriously, but thinking about these not as just mere one-off transactions, we’re creating a body of work and precedent that should be inculcating the department with a set of values and standards.
Last week police superintendent Eddie Johnson said he’ll move to fire seven officers for allegedly lying about what they saw when Officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald and killed him. I understand you cannot discuss specific cases, but can you explain what a ‘rule 14’ violation is?
It’s colloquially known as the “You lie, you die” rule. Police departments all across the country have had a standard of integrity that in effect says you cannot be a police officer if you lie in the course of your official duties, whether you lie by commission or omission. That rule has been on the books in the Chicago Police Department for quite a long time, but it’s probably only been in the last decade or so that it’s been very rigorously enforced. And we’re not talking about trivial matters where people make honest mistakes. But what we see too often is that people make honest mistakes and then compound the problem by lying about it.
There are other times where it’s very clear that an officer’s statements are woefully inconsistent with whatever the gathered evidence is, whether its a video tape or audiotape or police reports or other witnesses’ testimony.
It’s important for police officers to understand that people expect them to operate at a higher and different standard than the ordinary person, and frankly the ordinary employee. And I think we have the right to have that expectation.
It’s a privilege to be an officer. And frankly what I hear from other officers across the city, retired and active, of all ranks, that when they’re trying to do their job the right way, they’re trying to do their job with integrity, they’re trying to build trust with the community. The people who don’t do that, and who compound the problem by lying as a matter of course, it makes it that much more difficult for those officers who are trying to do their job the right way — to actually be believed and have integrity and legitimacy in the community.
The city is in the process of abolishing the Independent Police Review Authority in favor of a more independent police oversight agency. What does this new agency need to look like to repair some of the distrust that exists now?
There are a lot of really basic, easy things that frankly should have been done back in 2007 when IPRA was stood up that weren’t done. Right now if IPRA goes out on a case — let’s say it’s a police-involved shooting — when they collect evidence that evidence is collected and stored by Chicago police officer evidence technicians, not IPRA staff. IPRA doesn’t have a separate IT infrastructure from the Police Department. That should obviously happen. And at the end of a case, when they close a case and they send it off to storage, it goes to the Bureau of Internal Affairs at the Police Department. So those are some relatively easy fixes.
What also needs to happen: There’s a lot of conversation about how is the head of the new organization going to be selected. We’ve got to be reasonable. We’ve got to do something that shows there is true independence in the way that the person is selected. But at the end of the day, if that person does not perform, the mayor of Chicago is going to be held accountable, so to take the mayor completely out of the process of selecting one of his most important cabinet members also doesn’t make sense to me personally.
The budget for IPRA: There hasn’t ever been a dedicated budget like there is for the Inspector General’s office. That’s something we recommend has to happen.
And then fundamentally, [we need to show] that there’s actually real transparency and timeliness in the way that the investigations are conducted. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. You can put the best structures in place, but if it’s not executed that’s not going to make any difference. But I’m optimistic that we — the collective we — will come up with a plan for the new organization that will address some of these issues.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.