The Chicago Police Board has gotten tougher under its new leadership — and that could spell trouble for officers facing possible firing in the Laquan McDonald scandal.
Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, became president of the board in late July 2015, replacing Demetrius Carney, the 19-year head of the board and an attorney in private practice.
Lightfoot’s appointment was part of a shakeup of the board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he was sworn in for a second term last year.
He was trying to restore public trust shaken by police abuse cases and by the board’s history of reversing the police superintendent’s recommendations to fire accused officers.
As the Justice Department investigates Chicago Police practices, the city’s disciplinary system for officers has come under fire for being too slow and for the tiny fraction of complaints that result in disciplinary cases against cops.
Of those cases that do wind up before the police board, though, most of them have resulted in serious discipline under Lightfoot’s watch, according to a Sun-Times analysis.
The board, which decides punishment in police discipline cases, has fired 12 officers in the year that Lightfoot has headed it. Only twice in any year between 2006 and 2015 has the board fired more officers than that.
Under Lightfoot, the board has suspended one officer — far fewer suspensions than in other years during the past decade.
But what is particularly unusual is that the board hasn’t acquitted any officers of administrative charges. In previous years, the board regularly found officers not guilty of administrative charges. The lowest number of acquitted officers was two in 2009; the highest number was 11 officers in 2012.
On Thursday, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said he will move to fire seven officers for allegedly lying about what they witnessed on Oct. 20, 2014, when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him. Video from a dashboard camera in a police vehicle seems to contradict statements by Van Dyke and his fellow officers that McDonald was approaching Van Dyke when he was shot.
Johnson has recommended that the Chicago Police Board fire those seven officers for “making a false report,” a violation of the police department’s Rule 14. Two others, including a deputy chief, resigned last week.
Under Lightfoot, the board has fired four officers who were found guilty of a Rule 14 violation. Civil right advocates say cracking down on such lying is key to reforming the department.
Attorneys who represent Chicago Police officers before the board say they have noticed the board has gotten a lot tougher on cops.
“The difference is night and day,” said one veteran attorney, who didn’t want to give his name because didn’t want to incur the wrath of the board.
“The pendulum has swung too far against the officers. Officers used to be able to keep their jobs when they had no business being police officers. Now police officers are getting fired on cases in which the evidence is very thin.”
The lawyer added: “The city has never been good at catching the serious, entrenched misconduct. They go for the low-hanging fruit.”
In an interview last week, Lightfoot was asked to explain her tough approach to police discipline.
“I spent a lot of time looking at all the factors that influence the quality of the evidence that was presented to the board. To the extent that we as board members controlled any of those factors, I made sure we were doing the best we possibly could in understanding all of the general orders and all of the contributing factors,” she said.
“I have placed an emphasis on making sure we get a complete and fulsome record so that the board can make the best decision possible. We have emphasized that it’s very important that the charges actually reflect the facts. I believe we have worked well as a board to reach the best decision possible based upon the record developed through our evidentiary process.”
Lightfoot was asked whether she believes past police boards were part of a “code of silence” that Emanuel has acknowledged exists in the Chicago Police Department.
“I don’t believe that to be true knowing who the board members were. Everybody who served on this board over the years has taken their job very seriously,” she said. “But we are clearly in a very different time.”
Accountability for officers’ conduct extends from cops in the street to the police board, Lightfoot said. “Everybody understands that it includes us.”
In addition to being the final arbiter on police misconduct cases, the board is also charged with conducting a nationwide search for a new police superintendent. Earlier this year, the board went through that process, only to have Emanuel reject all three names and choose insider Johnson, who did not apply for the job.
The end-run around the board prompted three members to resign: Claudia Valenzuela, Melissa Ballatte and William Conlon. None returned messages seeking comment. There are two vacancies on the nine-member board.