Former federal prosecutor picked to run Chicago Police Board

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Lori Lightfoot has been picked to lead the Chicago Police Board. | File Photo

The board charged with taking disciplinary action against wayward Chicago Police officers is finally under new leadership.

Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, who once ran the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards, is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s choice to replace longtime Police Board President Demetrius Carney.

Critics have long argued that new blood is needed on the Police Board to restore public trust severely shaken by police abuse cases and by the board’s history of reversing the superintendent’s recommendations to terminate accused officers.

That is true now more than ever with the death of African-American suspects at the hands of police triggering demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City.

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Demetrius Carney was president of the Chicago Police Board for 19 years. | File Photo

Lightfoot, 52, said she’s well aware that she’s taking the political hot seat “at a time when there is a heightened sense of awareness on issues that can be challenging for police departments” in cities large and small.

“We’ve seen with what’s happening around the country that the public demands and expects that, when there are serious allegations of misconduct by police officers, that those charged with doing investigations and rendering final judgment will act in a fair and expeditious manner,” she said.

“I will be working hard to make sure the Police Board lives up to those standards. I obviously have a lot of information I need to understand about where they are and the challenges they face. That will be job one for me. … It’s really important that the public understands what the role of the Police Board is and that it views the work the Police Board does as fair and transparent. Not everybody is going to agree with the outcomes. But the process has to be fair, accessible and understandable to the public and to the police force itself.”

Emanuel said Lightfoot is uniquely qualified to lead the “unique and important” Police Board that gives Chicagoans a “voice in the disciplinary process.”

“As a former federal prosecutor and with a deep background in public safety, Lori Lightfoot brings an important perspective and a record of impartiality to Chicago’s Police Board that will serve our city well,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a statement.

Lightfoot is an openly gay, African-American woman with an independent streak that has carried her through a distinguished legal career. She was a finalist for the U.S. Attorney’s job that went to Zach Fardon.

More than a decade ago, she served as chief administrator of Office of Professional Standards, now known as the Independent Police Review Authority; it investigates police-involved shootings, allegations of excessive force and other incidents of police misconduct.

Her bio on the Mayer Brown law firm website, where she serves as partner, credits Lightfoot with “redesigning the disciplinary processes” for sworn and civilian police employees. She’s further credited with creating “a management intervention program” for problem employees that used “targeted tracking of litigation costs associated with complaints” against police officers.

That’s not the only place where Lightfoot showed her independent streak.

In 2005, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley bounced his chief procurement officer and asked the team of Lightfoot and Mary Dempsey to clean up a minority contracting program disgraced by scandal.

In the course of cleaning house, Lightfoot and Dempsey made waves by taking on powerful targets. They included Tony Rezko, the now-convicted former chief fund-raiser for now-convicted ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Elzie Higginbottom, Daley’s chief fundraiser in the black community; construction giant F.H. Paschen; and the O’Hare outpost of O’Brien’s restaurant, an Old Town institution.

Daley didn’t want them to go that far. He simply wanted them to make the negative headlines tied to the Hired Truck and minority contracting scandals go away.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that Carney remained as Police Board president in spite of an ordinance tailor-made to breathe new life into the police disciplinary board.

The ordinance championed by now-retired Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) prohibited police board members from serving for more than 10 years. Carney, 68, served as board president for 19 years.

The nine-member police board decides disciplinary cases in which the police superintendent seeks to fire or suspend an officer for more than 30 days — and cases in which the superintendent and the Independent Police Review Authority disagree on the recommended punishment.

Suspensions ranging from six to 30 days are also reviewed upon request.

A Chicago Sun-Times review of the board’s decisions found police Supt. Garry McCarthy loses most of the cases in which he seeks to fire an officer.

Between March 2014 and March 2015, the board considered requests to fire 25 officers.The board fired only seven of them, two of whom already had been convicted of criminal charges in separate court cases. Of the 18 who kept their jobs, 13 were found not guilty of wrongdoing and restored to duty, and five others were either suspended or reprimanded for misconduct.

The board also fired one officer the superintendent sought to suspend.

In four additional cases, the board downgraded the punishments of four fired cops after they won appeals.

Last year, the Police Board voted 5 to 4 to fire Chicago Police Officer Timothy McDermott for joining another former officer in posing for a racist photograph with rifles as they stood over a black man lying on his belly with deer antlers.

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Chicago Police Officers Jerome Finnigan, left, and Timothy McDermott with an unidentified man. | Photo from court file

The four dissenters argued that McDermott should only have been suspended. But a majority of the board wrote that “appearing to treat an African-American man not as a human being but as a hunted animal is disgraceful and shocks the conscience.”

McDermott is now seeking to overturn that decision in court.

Last week, Emanuel had two choice words for McDermott: “Good riddance.”

Last month, Chicago became the nation’s first major city to dole out reparations — $5.5 million, to be exact — to compensate those allegedly tortured by former Area 2 Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his co-horts.

It was the boldest step the city has taken to remove what Emanuel has called “this stain” on the Chicago Police Department.

If Emanuel has any hope of revitalizing community policing and getting the public cooperation police need to solve crimes, the first order of business is to restore public trust between citizens and police in the black community so undermined by the Burge torture era.

The Police Board shake-up that Lightfoot has been asked to lead is yet another step in that process.

In addition to passing judgment on police misconduct, the Police Board conducts the nationwide search for a new police superintendent.

That could become important if and when Superintendent Garry McCarthy decides to call it quits.

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