Nobody likes being backed into a corner — least of all a notoriously controlling Chicago mayor.
But that’s the box Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in when it comes to deciding whether to reappoint Lori Lightfoot to another term as city police board president.
Dump Lightfoot and Emanuel will be sending a dangerous message that he will not tolerate dissent on the all-important issue of police reform.
And ousting a fiercely-independent African-American woman would be particularly damaging at a time when the mayor is trying to restore trust among black voters shattered by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video and is under fire to honor his promise to seek federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department instead of relying on an independent monitor.
Ousting Lightfoot could also damage the police board’s credibility and create a political martyr who could challenge Emanuel for mayor in 2019.
But retaining Lightfoot also has its risks. It would leave in her hands during the run-up to the 2019 election the political mallet she has used to hammer the mayor.
Doing nothing is not an option, something Lightfoot herself knows.
“There was a recent case involving the personnel board where the board members were all operating on expired terms. They took action against an employee. And the employee was able to successfully appeal it because they were operating without proper jurisdiction,” Lightfoot said.
“I never want that to happen with any police board action. So, something needs to be done.”
Lightfoot was chosen by the mayor in May 2015 to overhaul a police board with a history of reversing the superintendent’s recommendations to terminate accused officers. She has more than delivered.
“We went from disagreeing with the superintendent 65 percent of the time to taking definitive action against police officers in nearly every single case,” Lightfoot said. “There were some challenges with the way the board was functioning. We have corrected those issues.”
But Lightfoot has also clashed repeatedly with the mayor.
She led the nationwide search for a replacement for fired Police Supt. Garry McCarthy only to have the mayor reject all three finalists and choose Eddie Johnson, who hadn’t even applied for the job. The City Council then changed the rules after-the fact by nixing the charade of a second nationwide search.
Lightfoot also co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability whose scathing report forced Emanuel to abolish the Independent Police Review Authority and set the stage for a similar investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It was rather shocking to everybody. . . . Most people thought she was the mayor’s handpicked person and that it would not be as strong in its recommendations for change,” Chicago Urban League President Shari Runner said Wednesday.
More recently, Lightfoot branded the memorandum of agreement drafted by Emanuel in hopes of avoiding federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department a “fundamentally flawed” document that “sets the police department up for failure.”
She called the 70-page agreement woefully inadequate because there is no specific list of reforms; no time line to get there; no commitment of personnel and funding and no promise to change a police contract that, Lightfoot has said, “turns the code of silence into official policy.”
Lightfoot’s critique was a significant blow to Emanuel.
She is one of the few people who has actually seen and studied the 70-page document. And she was among the few police reform advocates who were willing to give a memorandum of agreement a chance after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear he views consent decrees as “antithetical to his relationship with local police.”
Emanuel has been in this box before.
He spent two years in a cold war with Inspector General Joe Ferguson that included a legal battle over access to documents that went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.
It was only after the Ohio bribery scandal that culminated in the conviction of former City Comptroller Amer Ahmad that Emanuel seemed to realize Ferguson was more helpful than threatening.
Ferguson has since been reappointed twice with dramatically expanded power, most recently to a four-year term that coincides with his new deputy inspector general for public safety.
Before the last reappointment, Emanuel met privately with Ferguson to solidify a more collaborative relationship that has been a dramatic departure from the first two years, when Ferguson’s investigations blindsided and embarrassed Emanuel.
That’s the same pattern Emanuel followed with Lightfoot, who said she had a “full and frank” discussion with the mayor on Wednesday in their first meeting in 16 months.
Lightfoot “should re-appointed. She’s done a good job,” Runner said, arguing that, to do otherwise would “sound like it’s a bit retaliatory.”