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Deputy IG for public safety resigns to pursue top watchdog job

Under former Inspector General Joe Ferguson and deputy IG for public safety Deborah Witzburg, the public safety section has produced high-profile audits and reports sharply critical of the police department and Lightfoot.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Sun-Times file

The third person ever to serve as Chicago’s deputy inspector general for public safety resigned Monday to pursue the top city watchdog’s job.

Deborah Witzburg’s resignation was prompted by her desire to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest as she seeks a mayoral appointment to replace her newly-departed boss, Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

But it also means if Mayor Lori Lightfoot does not choose Witzburg as the city’s next inspector general, Chicago will lose its most outspoken, articulate and experienced advocate for police reform.

“Deborah has done an incredibly good job in that capacity. Deborah is spot-on when it comes down to — not just the investigations, but the explanation of those investigations,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety.

“She came out to the communities. She spoke at several events — at least two or three in my ward alone. … She has a great relationship with a lot of my colleagues, which goes to her being very outward-focused in this office.”

Witzburg could face long odds, considering the political tensions that prompted Lightfoot to hint strongly she had no intention of reappointing Ferguson.

Under Ferguson and Witzburg’s leadership, the public safety section has done a series of high-profile audits and reports sharply critical of the Chicago Police Department and Lightfoot.

Those reports targeted everything from the error-filled gang database and the slow walk toward compliance with a federal consent decree to a ShotSpotter contract that, Witzburg contended, rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with areas they’re charged with patrolling.

Chicago police form a line with batons out after an earlier clash with protesters near Logan Square Park in Chicago Friday, April 16, 2021, a day after the release of video that shows a Chicago police officer fatally shoot a 13-year-old last month.
Chicago police form a line with batons out after an earlier clash with protesters in April near Logan Square Park, a day after the release of video showing a CPD officer fatally shooting a 13-year-old in March.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Even more damning and embarrassing to the mayor was the inspector general’s blistering critique of CPD’s handling of civil unrest last summer that devolved into two devastating rounds of looting.

It concluded CPD was “outflanked and unprepared” for problems it should have anticipated and that rank-and-file officers were “left to high-stakes improvisation without adequate supervision or guidance.”

Before ending his 12-year run as Chicago’s top watchdog, Ferguson also delivered a 163-page report on the botched police raid on the wrong home that humiliated social worker Anjanette Young, who was left handcuffed and naked for 40 minutes in a room full of male police officers.

Given all of that investigative history and how defensive Lightfoot can be when criticized, it appears unlikely the mayor will choose a new inspector general with potential to embarrass her as much as Ferguson did.

Taliaferro would only say he didn’t agree with some of Ferguson’s most recent investigations, nor did he like the way Ferguson handled the release of those reports.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has since left that job, speaks to members of the City Council during budget hearings earlier this month.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has since left that job, speaks to members of the City Council during budget hearings earlier this month.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I don’t know whether they were politically-motivated. But I do know that they were very harsh toward our superintendent and, possibly, toward the mayor as well. They seemed to be one-sided,” Taliaferro said.

“If those investigations are being leaked to the media prior to any of us [Council members] being able to see them and even before the superintendent gets an opportunity to respond, then anyone would start to question whether or not that report is politically biased or politically generated.”

The chairman added: “Deborah will have to stand on her record and the perception of that record by the mayor.”

Lightfoot has said she is determined to appoint a strong and independent inspector general, but one who “understands the importance of staying in their lane.”

The mayor was tight-lipped Monday when asked if Witzburg fits that description.

“I’m not gonna comment on anybody who unilaterally has said, ‘I’m gonna apply.’ She can apply, go through the process and the chips will fall where they may,” Lightfoot said.

In her letter to the mayor, written Monday, Witzburg said she was resigning, effective Nov. 12, to avoid compromising the independence of the inspector general’s office.

“Because the [Office of Inspector General’s] Public Safety Section oversees and makes recommendations to city departments, including the office of the mayor, it is my responsibility to avoid any appearance or concern that the work of the section might be influenced by my candidacy for a mayoral appointment and that its independence might therefore be impaired,” Witzburg wrote.

Ferguson’s replacement will be chosen by a search committee composed of three mayoral appointees and two people chosen by the City Council.

The position of deputy inspector general for public safety was one of several reform measures the Council enacted in the furor following the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.