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Lightfoot makes the case for costly police reforms

Police Board President Lori Lightfoot testifies on Wednesday. Photo by Fran Spielman.

Police Board President Lori Lightfoot argued Wednesday for increased training and changes to both the police contract and to the way police supervisors are chosen to restore public trust in the Chicago Police Department shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Lightfoot laid out an ambitious and costly reform agenda while testifying at the second and final subject matter hearing on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to abolish the Independent Police Review Authority and replace it with a new multi-layered system of police accountability.

Instead of confining her testimony to how the new system should be structured, Lightfoot took a more expansive view.

She talked about training so “woefully insufficient,” the “only mandatory annual” requirement for police officers once they graduate from the police academy is firearms qualification that simply requires “firing 30 bullets into a paper target.”

She homed in on a system of choosing police supervisors that “makes no sense whatsoever because they are not tested or selected for their ability to actually supervise.”

“Sergeants who, on a day-in, day-out basis, touch more officers than anybody else in the department — they are the backbone of the department. They are the key to cultural change. And they have to be selected in a way that makes sense. They have to be supported with training and follow-up, so they can do their job effectively,” she said.

“You’ve got to think about internal legitimacy and external legitimacy. Those are not things that the department currently tests for. If you collect people on a set of criteria that isn’t really consistent with the realities of the job, you’re setting them up for failure.”

Lightfoot warned aldermen that, if they don’t take the lead in demanding police reform, the U.S. Justice Department now conducting a sweeping civil rights investigation of the Police Department’s “patterns and practices” will mandate those changes.

“A lot of these things are gonna cost money. But, the reality is, the Department of Justice is gonna make this happen. We should take charge of it now and not wait for DOJ to force a solution,” she said.

Noting that Chicago spends $20 million-a-year on police settlements, she said, “If we took half of that money … and invested it into the Police Department, and we were smart about the way in which we deployed those additional resources, we would dramatically transform the conversation. We would, hopefully, provide the kind of training officers need and deserve. We would think more about mental wellness of our officers so that, when they put on a badge and a gun, they’re fit for duty.”

Earlier this year, the Task Force on Police Accountability, co-chaired by Lightfoot,   released a blistering, 190-page report that characterized IPRA as so “badly broken” it needs to be abolished.

The report also took aim at a police contract that makes it “easy for officers to lie” by giving them 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting and includes “impediments to accountability” that prohibits anonymous complaints, allows officers to change statements after reviewing video and requires complaint records to be destroyed.

Aldermen Scott Waguespack (32nd), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and Ariel Reboyras (30th) listen to Police Board President Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday. Photo by Fran Spielman.

Aldermen Scott Waguespack (32nd), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and Ariel Reboyras (30th) listen to Police Board President Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday. Photo by Fran Spielman.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot turned up the heat for those changes and added two more to her hit-list: an arbitration process that allows wayward officers to escape with lesser penalties and a process for questioning accused officers that ties investigators’ hands and slows the process to a crawl.

After hearing from a “startling cross-section” of Chicagoans who view police officers as racist, Lightfoot also made the case for “some kind of racial reconciliation” that would allow Chicagoans who have felt harassed or disrespected by police to publicly air their grievances across the table from police brass.

“You identify people at polar ends of the spectrum from the community and the Police Department, bring them together and start the dialogue. It’s difficult, slow, methodical work. But, that kind of process is one that Chicago could benefit from mightily and it has to happen,” she said.

“Recognizing the experiences, particularly of people of color in the city around policing, would work wonders. … Telling some of these stories and acknowledging and validating their experience and not dismissing it. … That’s’ a lot of what people want and need. It would go a long way in healing the rift between the community and the police.”

Emanuel has promised to replace IPRA with a more independent civilian agency, appoint a public safety inspector general and create a Community Safety Oversight Board to monitor all police-related operations.

IPRA’s chief administrator Sharon Fairley urged aldermen to move quickly. She warned that her staff was “starting to dip below critical mass” because the uncertain future has triggered an exodus.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, asked Fairley how she believes the police contract should be changed. She replied, “How long have you got?”

She then called for changes to the affidavit requirement, rigid rules on questioning accused officers and allowing suspended cops to serve their punishment by using comp time.

“It lessens the deterrent value,” she said.

Over Fairley’s objections, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) pushed for at least a temporary ban on retired police officers and prosecutors investigating police abuse to assemble an investigative pool that is “not tainted” by police families that go back generations.

Noting that IPRA is about to undergo its third name change in a decade, Hairston said, “We need something to help the public trust the agency because they were told that ten years ago and it’s worse than ever. And if it weren’t for the [Laquan McDonald] video, it would still be going on. … We’ve got to find a way to stop the bleeding.”

After Wednesday’s hearing, Lightfoot was asked whether she has any interest in running for mayor in 2019. Her ambitious agenda sounded like it came from a mayoral hopeful.

“Unequivocally no,” she said. “I am not running for mayor.”