Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot — the face of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department in the wake of the release of the Laquan McDonald police shooting video — is catching flak from all sides.
Emanuel appointed Lightfoot, 52, last June to head the Chicago Police Board, which is now leading the search for a new police superintendent following Emanuel’s firing of Supt. Garry McCarthy.
Then, in December, amid the furor following the release of the video, he named her to head the Special Commission on Police Accountability he created to review the police department and make recommendations.
Some cops view Lightfoot as part of a City Hall strategy to scapegoat the police over concerns about how they treat blacks after police dashcam video showed Officer Jason Van Dyke, now indicted for first-degree murder, shoot the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times.
Some African Americans see her as a sellout — a black woman appointed to do the mayor’s bidding.
Facing a March 1 deadline to submit three finalists for superintendent and another one March 31 to submit reform recommendations, Lightfoot spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika at her office at Mayer Brown, the Chicago law firm where she’s been a partner for over a decade, about her background and what she hopes to accomplish. An edited transcript follows.
Question: What shaped you?
Answer: I grew up in Ohio in a little town called Massillon, about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland. There’s four of us: two boys, two girls. I’m the youngest.
My father was a janitor at a factory. My father was deaf, so he had limited opportunities to get good-paying jobs. That’s why he worked so many different jobs when I was a kid. My dad usually had at least two, if not three, jobs while I was growing up. He lost his hearing when he was in his early 20s and was very sick. He was in a coma for about a year and almost died.
My mother worked in health care. She was a nurse’s aide, working in mental hospitals and nursing homes and, the latter part of her working life, did assistance for elderly patients who were sick and shut-in.
Q.: Your family now?
A.: I’m married. I live in Logan Square. My wife works for DePaul University. She’s involved in a program concerned with digital literacy for young people, in their after-school hours.
I have a daughter. She will be 8 at the end of February — and she’s doing the countdown every day.
Lori Lightfoot speaking last month at the City Club of Chicago. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Q.: Mayor Emanuel had to find someone with compelling credentials to lead this effort. Take us through your career trajectory.
A.: I went to the University of Michigan, a degree in political science. I worked two years in Washington, D.C., on the Hill — for my local congressman in Ohio, Ralph Regula, then a short time for [then-U.S. Rep.] Barbara Mikulski.
I came to Chicago in 1986 to attend law school at the University of Chicago and received my law degree in 1989. I clerked for a year on the Michigan Supreme Court for Justice Charles Levin and came back to Chicago to work at what was then Mayer, Brown & Platt.
I left for the U.S. attorney’s office April of ’96 in the criminal division, prosecuting everything from violent crime to public corruption. I prosecuted police officers toward the latter part of my career, which is what first gave me some visibility into the Chicago Police Department.
Probably the most notable case I prosecuted was serial arsonist and murderer John Veysey. He blew up his house three times, killed his first wife, almost killed his second wife and his son — all for insurance money. I also was part of the prosecution team for Ald. Virgil Jones [convicted in Operation Silver Shovel].
In July ’02, I went to work at the police department as chief administrator for the Office of Professional Standards, then, in July ’04, went to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications as general counsel and chief of staff.
In February ’05, I was asked by then-Mayor Daley to be part of an interim management team to clean up things at the Department of Procurement Services. I stayed until late September ’05, then came back to Mayer Brown.
Q.: With protests around the nation over African-American suspects killed at the hands of police, you knew you were being offered a hot seat when Emanuel came to you about the task force, with a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the police department looming. Why did you accept?
A.: I’d heard about the Laquan McDonald video but not seen it. Every person who described it to me said it was one of the worst things they had seen, period, anywhere. That did not undersell it. It was a horrible, horrible sight.
I could see the potential for the city really coming apart. I think often about people in neighborhoods whose children don’t feel safe in their homes from stray gunfire. And I think about how much they need the police to be doing their job.
What’s happening in Chicago is really part of a national narrative. And the narrative is very black-and-white. There’s no gray. There’s no nuance. It’s: “The police are bad. The police are killing us. They don’t care about us.”
I was very concerned about how destructive that could be — to our city and those people most in need of police protection.
I know enough from my experience that, like all human beings, there are police that are really good, and there are police who should never have been police.
The police and the community need each other. The rift that has developed has to be healed.
So how could I say no?
Q.: Since the November release of the McDonald video, we’ve seen other police shootings, the release of videos and old cases making their way through federal court.
A.: We have to get to a place where the police are doing their job, serving and protecting in a way that’s constitutional but, more importantly, with respect and empathy for the people they’re serving.
Lori Lightfoot, left, president of the Chicago Police Board, speaks during the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force’s first community forum, held at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church on Feb. 2. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Q.: After sitting through police board meetings punctuated by anger and disdain and now the task force forums that have been held this month, what’s your takeaway?
A.: There is a core of people — particularly young people and young men of color — who are angry, enraged, by what they see happening to them and their friends and their neighbors on the streets in certain neighborhoods of this city.
But I also hear — through not as loud a megaphone — people pleading for police support, for protection. What’s important is not to lose sight of those voices. They’re every bit as important as everybody else raising their voice in disdain and anger against the police.
At the forums, we are trying to structure that discussion in a way that we’re actually going to hear solutions. We really want to try to get people’s suggestions for change, as well as those voices out there who want to talk about ways in which the police department can more constructively engage with them and help solve the problems in their neighborhoods.
Q.: What do you say to those who have no faith any real change is going to occur?
A.: I’ve heard that. I would say I’m my own person. I am doing this work because I love my city, because I care deeply about these issues.
I’m not “a mayor’s person.” Frankly, we don’t know each other that well.
I’m kind of a Girl Scout by nature. I welcome the opportunity to try and make a difference. That’s what I’m about.
You know, being a black woman, throughout our country’s history, there haven’t been many opportunities for us to really be in positions of power and, more to the point, to be able to make real, lasting change in important institutions.
It’s hard to get a sense of somebody when you’re sitting across the table from them. I’m a person who’s very serious and focused. But I also have a family, I have a child, I have things that I like to do for fun. It’s hard to communicate all of that when you’re engaged in this intense effort.
There’s always going to be people out there who will be cynical and not believe anybody could be connected to any form of government and have good intentions. I get that.
But I would say, judge me — judge the task force — by our work.
We have pulled in people from all corners of this city, trying to address the systemic problem in the police department and create a blueprint for change.
I believe we’re going to make a difference. I think people will be surprised.