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New Police Board president walks a tightrope at confirmation hearing

If former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot didn’t already know she’d be walking a tightrope as Chicago’s new Police Board president, she got a reminder at her City Hall confirmation hearing Tuesday.

On one side was West Side Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former Chicago Police sergeant representing the crime-ridden Austin community. He proclaimed that the “disconnect” and level of distrust of police officers is “one of the highest I’ve seen in my 21 years” on the force.

“That had a lot to do with some of the decisions made by the Police Board itself. But a lot had to do with just the constant reduction in the community policing program as well,” Taliaferro said.

Taliaferro asked Lightfoot how she plans to “restore that trust and confidence.” Then he warned that the monthly Police Board meetings he attended regularly for nine years while serving as an Internal Affairs investigator would not be enough.

“I saw the public talking to the board, but no response from the board. I would certainly like to see some type of dialogue,” Taliaferro said.

On the other side was rookie Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), who has served Chicago as both a firefighter and a police officer.

Napolitano warned that the death of African-American suspects at the hands of police that has triggered demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, and New York City has police officers across the nation running scared.

“Fraudulent cases are dropped on police officers by the thousands each day across our country in hopes of making money. Due to this trend, police officers are becoming more reactive and less pro-active in fear that the pro-active police officers will be sued and receive numerous C.R. numbers,” Napolitano said, referring to “complaints registered” against police officers.

“We are losing our proud and pro-active police officers — and in Chicago, which is considered by national media as an all-out war zone — it’s a scary trend. . . . I ask of you this one request: Treat each and every case with a clear and open mind. Do not view or investigate anybody with a preconceived notion of guilt.”

Lightfoot did her best to appease both sides before the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety unanimously confirmed her appointment to replace Demetrius Carney, who spent nearly two decades as Police Board president.

Rookie Ald. David Moore (17th) greets newly-appointed Police Board President Lori Lightfoot after Tuesday's confirmation hearing before the City Council's Committee on Public Safety. |By Fran Spielman/Sun-Times Media

Rookie Ald. David Moore (17th) greets newly-appointed Police Board President Lori Lightfoot after Tuesday’s confirmation hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety. |By Fran Spielman/Sun-Times Media

She told Tailiaferro she was determined to maintain “constructive dialogue” — even if means going beyond monthly board meetings — to make certain and that the public is not “disconnected” from decisions the Police Board makes.

“There’s opportunities for members of the public to meet with me outside of those meetings if there’s a need. I’m going to avail myself of every opportunity to learn from the public . . . There’s an important dialogue that has to happen with the public and I’m committed to that,” she said.

“Many of our communities are hurting and are ravaged by crime. They need the police. And we need the police to be successful in fulfilling their important duties. But that work needs to be done in a way that is respectful to the communities and the individuals that they serve.”

But Lightfoot was equally reassuring to Napolitano.

“I recognize that terminating a police officer is a very, very serious matter. We, as a city, invest a significant amount of time, resources, energy and training and equipping them,” she said.

“No case that comes before us is gonna be treated with anything short of fairness, making sure that we understand all the issues. Making sure we ask all the right questions before we make any decision about terminating an officer. We owe that to the officers. We owe that to the community and to the public at large, and I can assure you that’s what we’ll do.”

Under questioning from rookie Ald. David Moore (17th), Lightfoot drew the line at officers who lie to investigators under questioning about alleged wrongdoing.

“If a case comes before the Police Board and there is evidence that an officer has lied — whether on- or off-duty — that officer should be terminated,” said Lightfoot, who served as chief administrator of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards under then-Superintendent Terry Hillard.

“Police Departments all across the country — and this one is no different — have a `lie, you die’ rule.”

Critics have long argued that new blood is needed on the Police Board to restore public trust severely shaken by police abuse cases and by the board’s history of reversing the superintendent’s recommendations to terminate accused officers.

Last year, the Police Board voted 5 to 4 to fire Chicago Police Officer Timothy McDermott for joining another officer, now in prison, in posing for a racist photograph with rifles as they stood over a black man lying on his belly with deer antlers.

The four dissenters in the McDermott case, including now-replaced board members Elisa Rodriquez and Susan McKeever, argued that McDermott should only have been suspended. But a majority of the board wrote that “appearing to treat an African-American man not as a human being but as a hunted animal is disgraceful and shocks the conscience.”

McDermott lost his battle to overturn that decision in court.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot let loose when asked about the infamous antler photo.

“That’s one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen outside of lynching photos. It was a horrifyingly awful picture. It demonstrated . . . excessively bad judgment,” Lightfoot said.