In politics, if you pass along a rumor, you had better be ready to own it.
If not, you risk losing credibility and doing harm to your own cause.
This is not always so. Donald Trump has made a career of spreading unsubstantiated rumors, such as the absurdity that “some people say” Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and it got him elected president. But anybody outside Trump’s base can see what a gasbag of lies he is, and history will not treat him well.
Which brings us to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Anyway you look at the facts, Lightfoot made a big rookie mistake in a recent interview in which she repeated “rumors” — her word — that the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents Chicago cops, had told officers to sit on their hands over the Memorial Day weekend.
To accuse the FOP of telling rank-and-file officers to violate their professional oath and not fight crime is a powerful ethical indictment. It’s playing with fire. If Lightfoot was not ready to source that rumor — if she was not ready to own it — she should not have repeated it.
Lightfoot’s defense on Monday was that her comments about the FOP were “maybe about 10 seconds” of a 30-minute interview she did on CAN-TV’s “Chicago Newsroom” program. And a Sun-Times headline, she said, took her words out of context by not including her reaction to the rumor.
On both counts, Lightfoot is wrong. It does not matter whether she talked about the FOP for 10 seconds or 10 hours; she impugned the professional integrity of the union in the worst possible way. A little more context, while always nice to have, would not have saved her.
Here’s what Lightfoot said to Ken Davis of “Chicago Newsroom”:
“You know, there were rumors floating around about — and I didn’t verify this — but rumors floating around that they were telling their officers, ‘Don’t do anything. Over Memorial Day weekend, don’t intercede. If you see some criminal activity, just lay back, do nothing.’ I hope to God that wasn’t true because, man oh man, if that happened there’s going to be a reckoning.”
When a mayor repeats a rumor, it gains credibility. Why else would the mayor pass it along? It bounces all over town like a pinball, regardless of any disclaimers.
In her interview with Davis, Lightfoot compounded her poor judgment by suggesting the FOP had done something like this before. Back in 2016, in the lead-up to Labor Day, she said, the FOP’s leadership “put out a memo telling officers that they should not show up for work, that they shouldn’t do their job, that they shouldn’t be the police.”
That, as the Better Government Association reported in Tuesday’s Sun-Times, is an exaggeration. The union had called for officers not to accept overtime requests during Labor Day weekend but said nothing about officers not doing their jobs.
The shame of it is that the FOP is no great prize. When Lightfoot argues that it has been an impediment to reform of the Chicago Police Department, she’s on solid ground.
The FOP has a remarkable inability to see any need for reform whatsoever, though the City of Chicago has paid a staggering $662 million on police misconduct — for judgments, settlements and outside legal fees — since 2004. The current police contract, which technically expired two years ago, is replete with indefensible provisions that make it difficult to hold bad officers accountable for their actions.
It will be Lightfoot’s job to demand major changes to a new police contract. She’s just made that job harder on herself, to the misfortune of the city.
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