Mayor Lori Lightfoot Blamed Gun Violence On Judges, But Emails Show Her Staff Knew It Wasn’t True

In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters after meeting with House Democrats at the state Capitol, in Springfield, Ill.
In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo, Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters at the state Capitol, in Springfield, Ill. Emails released to the public after a hack of the mayor’s office show City Hall struggling to find evidence that would justify Lightfoot's claims linking gun violence to bond court. John O’Connor / Associated Press
In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters after meeting with House Democrats at the state Capitol, in Springfield, Ill.
In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo, Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters at the state Capitol, in Springfield, Ill. Emails released to the public after a hack of the mayor’s office show City Hall struggling to find evidence that would justify Lightfoot's claims linking gun violence to bond court. John O’Connor / Associated Press

Mayor Lori Lightfoot Blamed Gun Violence On Judges, But Emails Show Her Staff Knew It Wasn’t True

Throughout her tenure, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the police superintendents who work for her have repeatedly blamed judges when the city’s violence starts to rise. The argument goes like this: If judges would keep more people locked up after arrest, then they wouldn’t be able to commit crimes, and violence in Chicago would decrease.

It’s a line of reasoning that has been popular with American politicians for decades and reflects the thinking that has propelled mass incarceration.

But emails released to the public after a hack of the mayor’s office show that even as Lightfoot and police leaders continued to trot out the talking point, some of the highest-ranking city officials were aware the claim was wrong. And in fact, the leader of the city’s anti-violence efforts repeatedly tried to get them to stop making the claim that decisions on pretrial release were driving Chicago shootings.

“Kind of weak”

After a violent Fourth of July weekend in 2019, both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and then-police Superintendent Eddie Johnson pointed the finger at the county court system.

“We can’t keep our community safe if people just keep cycling through the system,” Lightfoot complained.

About 10 days later, then-Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Susan Lee emailed some of her colleagues, alerting them that a group of other public officials had taken issue with the mayor and superintendent “attributing violence to the people bonding out” of jail, referring to the process in which people accused of crimes can pay money to be released from jail if a judge finds they would not be a threat to public safety.

Lee noted that the group had data showing that “very few folks who bond out actually commit violent offenses with a gun.”

Lee wrote in the email that she knew there were “concerns about the quality of this data from some,” but she also wrote that the Chicago Police Department was invited to review the data, but that review “never happened.”

Despite Lee’s concerns, and the available data, the talking point persisted.

A year later, police Superintendent David Brown got up in front of reporters and repeated the familiar refrain.

“Electronic monitoring and low bond amounts given to offenders endangers our residents and flies in the face of the hard work our police officers put in on a daily basis to take them off the streets,” Brown said. “I will continue to bring attention to the sheer number of repeat offenders who are given little to no jail time and low bonds and … go on to commit more crimes.”

By that point, the emails show, city officials were scrambling to find evidence that would justify Lightfoot and Brown’s claims, but their efforts were largely unsuccessful.

One week before Brown made his comments, in an email thread spurred by a question from Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz, the mayor’s office and CPD were able to find only two examples of bail decisions leading to new gun crimes.

On top of that, Pat Mullane, a top mayoral spokesman at the time, admitted to colleagues that one of the two examples was “kind of weak.” But he said the city needed to provide them “so the [superintendent] doesn’t look like he’s pointing the finger.”

Michael Crowley, then the mayor’s director of communications, responded “I’m good with the idea here … just wish we had more to give him.”

A few emails later, Margaret Huynh with the Police Department added, “We should be prepared though for the question that even with bail reform from 2017 on, Chicago still managed to see declining crime rates in the past few years- so why is it all of a sudden a problem now?”

“We really have to get off the narrative”

The struggle to find examples for the claim that “electronic monitoring and low bond amounts” were endangering residents did not appear to change the city’s messaging strategy.

In July 2020, about a year after she emailed about the data contradicting the bond court claim, Lee emailed her colleagues again about the subject.

In the email, Lee wrote that the state’s attorney’s office had presented data showing that “there is no short term revolving door where people get arrested, get out and then get arrested again in a short period of time.”

“Given this presentation we really have to get off the narrative around revolving door as the reason why violence is high,” Lee wrote.

She went on to speculate that maybe if they extended the time frame of the data they could find examples to support the claim. But ultimately, she said the data “does not fit the narrative” being pushed by the city and the Police Department.

About eight hours later, Lee forwarded her message to officials with CPD saying they “need to adjust CPD comms strategy.”

Lee titled the email’s subject line “no revolving door.”

It’s not clear from the emails what response, if any, Lee got from her colleagues at City Hall or from CPD brass.

Two months later, on Sept. 8, 2020, Brown once again told the media that the violent holiday weekend was at least partially the fault of a court system that allowed gun offenders to cycle in and out.

“It’s a catch and release court system and a damn shame,” Brown said at a Tuesday press conference following the Labor Day holiday.

University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman said the hacked emails show the disconnect between Lightfoot’s reform rhetoric and her actual policy platforms.

“Overall, they continue to reveal an attitude of the highest level of the administration that isn’t one that’s embracing reform,” Futterman said. “But one that is most concerned with ‘how do we look’ and actually what they reveal is a lot of behind the scenes, ‘what can we do to thwart reform?’ ”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is not commenting on anything contained in the email hack, saying that “reporting on materials compromised during a third-party vendor data transfer makes all of us less safe and encourages future bad actors to use nefarious means to gain information.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.