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Lightfoot’s top adviser for public safety to resign after just a year in job, sources say

Susan Lee, deputy mayor for public safety, was at odds with aldermen who wanted her fired. Her exit would follow news that Chicago’s No. 3 police official, Barbara West, is retiring.

Susan Lee, former deputy mayor for public safety.
Susan Lee, deputy mayor for public safety.
ChicagoCred.org

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy mayor for public safety is resigning just days after delivering a report outlining City Hall’s strategy to tamp down runaway violence, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday.

Susan Lee, deputy mayor for public safety, was appointed in June 2019. She previously was an executive at the not-for-profit Safe Chicago Network at Creating Real Economic Destiny founded by former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Lee, a California native, was hired to shift Chicago away from a “law-enforcement driven solution” to gang violence but had drawn sharp criticism from aldermen, who wanted Lightfoot to fire her.

In a written statement, Lightfoot praised Lee as an “invaluable member of my senior leadership team” who has helped to lead “public safety and violence reduction efforts.”

The statement said Lightfoot was informed of Lee’s decision to resign over the summer and that Lee would continue “in a consultant role” on police reform, consent-decree compliance, violence reduction and youth diversion after leaving City Hall.

Duncan said of Lee: “No one cares more about reducing violence in Chicago than Susan Lee. She has worked really hard in extremely challenging circumstances, and she leaves behind a very solid plan to combat violence and make Chicago safer. She has been a great partner with our organization, which she helped to build. All of us are in her debt.”

Lee’s exit will follow the announcement Wednesday that Barbara West is retiring from the No. 3 position in the Chicago Police Department. West, 53, had been promoted to deputy superintendent of the department’s new bureau of constitutional policing and reform in January.

West, who has been with the department for 26 years, was in charge of carrying out the reforms the U.S. Justice Department called for in the police department after an investigation triggered by the 2015 release of a video of a Chicago cop fatally shooting Laquan McDonald on the Southwest Side.

A federal monitor over police reforms said in June that more than 70% of the deadlines for the reforms had been missed. At the time, West said, “Reform is not going to be done overnight.” She also said then that the department had revised its use-of-force policies and wanted to hear from the public about other policies.

“I don’t think we’re gonna miss a beat,” Lightfoot said Thursday of the departure. “There’s a whole infrastructure built up around the consent decree, and she’s just one part of it.

“I’m not concerned because I know what work is being done now. They’re being extraordinarily diligent. They’ve got a lot of internal...milestones that they’re hitting. The project management has been much improved. They’re making good progress. But they’ve got to stay diligent.”

Lee was no favorite of Chicago aldermen, who were upset about the deputy mayor’s inability to respond to basic questions at Chicago City Council hearings. There was so much disenchantment that aldermen spoke recently about writing a letter to Lightfoot demanding she fire Lee.

Sources said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), the council’s budget committee chair, discouraged them from doing that, telling colleagues Lee would be gone soon.

Last month, during a meeting of the council’s budget and public safety committees focusing on police spending, South Side Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) complained the city was wasting millions by funding violence-prevention organizations with “no impact.”

Lee was instrumental in choosing those organizations.

At that hearing, Lee told aldermen the Lightfoot administration was exploring a “co-responder model” in which police officers and social workers would respond together to domestic violence and mental health calls.

That got chilly reactions from aldermen concerned that the numbers of killings and shootings in Chicago have doubled this year. North Side Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said, “What we all want is public safety for residents of Chicago, and I don’t think we’re really getting to the meat of that.”

On Thursday, Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), Lightfoot’s most outspoken council critic, welcomed Lee’s departure. He said he called for her resignation weeks ago, and the Black Caucus was interested in doing the same.

Lopez said Lee was the architect of “a number of these bad public safety policies that we’ve seen implemented and regurgitated by this administration. The fact that she tried to address public safety solely through the lens of an academic and not someone who’s been fighting in the trenches against gang members and drug dealers has shown in the results.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the council’s Black Caucus, said Lee ran into trouble because of her “top-down methodology” and failure to communicate with aldermen.

“When it comes to the overall strategy on public safety, they may have kept cards too close to the vest and not really talked to everybody about what peoples’ thoughts were,” Ervin said. “I hope whoever replaces her is a little more inclusive.”