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Lightfoot calls bodyguard detail controversy a ‘tempest in a teapot’

Lightfoot dismisses FOP opposition to her choice: ‘The union is never happy. Tell me something new.’

Lori Lightfoot with James Smith, head of security detail
James Smith (center) follows Mayor Lori Lightfoot out of a cabinet meeting Tuesday. Smith, a former U.S. marshal, will be in charge of Lightfoot’s security detail. He’s not a Chicago Police officer; that’s a break from custom, and it has angered the Fraternal Order of Police.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday dismissed as a “tempest in a teapot” the controversy created by her decision to appoint a retired deputy U.S. marshal as commander of her bodyguard detail.

Lightfoot’s decision to hire James Smith to run the security detail now charged with protecting the new mayor, her wife, Amy Eshleman, and their 11-year-old daughter, Vivian has angered the Fraternal Order of Police.

FOP President Kevin Graham said the mayor’s detail has been the exclusive purview of Chicago Police officers “for as long as anyone can remember … and we at the FOP intend to keep it that way.”

On Wednesday, Lightfoot was asked about the union’s opposition to her choice of Smith and the strong possibility that the FOP may file a grievance aimed at blocking the move.

“The union is never happy. Tell me something new. How is this different than any other day?” said Lightfoot, who co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability whose scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department laid the groundwork for the U.S. Justice Department to do the same, setting the stage for a consent decree.

“Nobody has a claim on any job. We have put together a team that, I think, works. It’s about my personal safety and the safety of my family. And I’m not gonna respond every time the FOP cries foul, which is basically every day about every issue.”

Lightfoot was asked why she chose Smith, whose wife is a high-powered lobbyist who has represented United Airlines and other big clients with business before the city.

She made it clear that she knows and trusts him from their days together at the federal building when Lightfoot was a federal prosecutor.

“He’s a former U.S. marshal. I have absolute total confidence in him. This is a tempest in a teapot,” she said.

“This is a gentleman who guarded Supreme Court justices, high-ranking federal officials who have been under threat. I have total confidence in him to be able to do the job, as do I have total confidence in the CPD officers, many of whom have been with me now for six weeks-plus. I want to make sure that they are supported and he is supported and that’s what we’ll do.”

Lightfoot’s decision to anoint Smith as commander of her detail is not as simple as it sounds.

Law enforcement sources said Smith now must go through at least part of the Chicago Police academy training that also is required of newly-hired CPD officers.

Smith spent 26 years in the U.S. Marshal’s office. But federal marshals don’t get the same rigorous training the state requires of Chicago Police officers.

Had Lightfoot chosen Smith to be the civilian chief of her bodyguard detail, no further training would have been required. But on Monday, he was appointed commander of a soon-to-be expanded unit.

That means he must meet Illinois Police Training Board requirements for a commander of that unit, sources said.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has responded to the union’s complaint by saying that Lightfoot “has to be comfortable with her protection for herself and her family.”

“When it comes to your personal protection, you have the right to feel comfortable, whatever way you go. ... I’m not saying she is uncomfortable, but she has to be comfortable. It’s a personal decision for that person,” Johnson told the Sun-Times at Lightfoot’s inauguration Monday.

“She’s had a relationship with this gentleman for some time now. So I understand that. … At her request, I met and then appointed a retired U.S. marshal to command her detail. But it’ll be a mixture of maybe outside folks that didn’t come from CPD as well as CPD.”

Johnson refused to say if there were any increased threats to the new mayor’s safety.

Asked whether Lightfoot, the former police board president, trusts Chicago Police officers to protect her, he said: “I think she does. This is her police department now.”

James Smith (center), head of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s security detail, stands behind Lightfoot as she greets constituents at a CTA station the morning after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral election, April 3, 2019.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times