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"We've got to be bold": Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on reforming the police in the wake of George Floyd's death

Chicago mayor on police reform
Chicago mayor on police reform 08:21

In response to the widespread public outcry over police brutality, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has launched a new police reform and racial justice working group. The group will devise a set of guidelines to address police violence and patterns of racial discrimination, which will not include defunding or disbanding police departments

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the former head of the Chicago Police Board, is one of the mayors spearheading this initiative. In an interview with Elaine Quijano for the CBSN special, "Red & Blue: State of Our Union," Lightfoot said "we've got to be bold" when it comes to police reform. 

"I think mayors across the country, particularly in this time, we have a moment where we can really change for the good, the narrative around accountability and legitimacy and policing," Lightfoot said. "And we've got to seize this moment and move forward aggressively and not be timid. We've got to be bold." 

Tom Cochran, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the group hopes to release actionable recommendations by July. Lightfoot said the group wants to "really emphasize" transparency. 

"But you can be sure that we're going to be looking at accountability and disciplinary measures, looking at police contracts, officer wellness programs — and clearly, how we focus on bridging the divide between communities and police, and looking at innovative programs to bring the community into training programs," she said. "And making sure that every officer, no matter where they police… really has cultural literacy about the surrounding neighborhood and the people and not just getting their information from crime statistics."  

Developing cultural literacy in the police force is critical in a city like Chicago, Lightfoot said, adding that it remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation. 

"We recruit from segregated neighborhoods. So in many instances, people of different races and backgrounds are seeing each other as peers for the very first time in the Academy..." she said. "What they get taught is policing strategy and tactics and crime statistics, but they don't learn the rich cultural history of neighborhoods. And if you don't have that as your foundation, it makes it all the more difficult for you to build authentic relationships with the people that you are sworn to serve and protect." 

Anti-Racism Protests Held In U.S. Cities Nationwide
Protesters march in support of Black Lives Matter on June 6, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois.  Getty Images

Lightfoot also emphasized police department licensing as a valuable reform option. 

"Every state has a series of regulatory system schemes for barbers, for manicurists. We know how to regulate industries," she said. "And what we're looking at is setting a baseline of criteria, training requirements there on a regular basis — a threshold around discipline issues so that an officer has to meet those criteria in order to be a peace officer anywhere in the state. This is not difficult. It's just been resisted by police unions."  

"We need to have that, I think, for the public to really have confidence that we're serious around reform and accountability," she added. "And the other thing is there's gotta be a process for just certifying officers."

Lightfoot offered the example of Jon Burge, a former member of the Chicago Police Department who was accused of abusing suspects to prompt confessions. In 2011, Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for lying about the torture of suspects.  

"He was convicted and served federal time," Lightfoot said. "And yet after he got out of there, he could have gone someplace else and been the police. He died getting his police pension from the city of Chicago, even though he cost us hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and judgments related to his misconduct and [that of] the people who worked for him — not to mention that we still are in a deficit of trust as a result of the criminal conduct of Jon Burge. And yet no consequences befell him, other than he lost his job as a Chicago police officer." 

Lightfoot added that she's seen examples of officers who have served time for corruption who still have their pensions.

"That can't be a thing that continues," she said. "That's an affront to all of our values. And it's an affront to taxpayers, who are footing the bill for these people who are convicted criminals, arising out of their jobs as police officers. So there's, I think, a lot more that we need to bring to the table when we talk about this licensing issue. And we've got to break through the stranglehold that police unions have had on reform." 

Lightfoot added that she knows "it's not going to be easy" to get police unions invested in the idea of reform — but said now is the time to try.  

"I don't know that we are going to be able to get every union on board with this because they do resist reform…" she said. "But I think this outcry that we're seeing across the country, and particularly in major cities that have police departments that have a checkered history, this is our moment to get something done. This is our moment to make sure that state legislators and local officials really rise to the occasion, not just with record rhetoric, but with actions." 

"We can talk about this as a noble profession," she added. "Yet we treat it as something less than that. And if it's a noble profession, accountability has got to be part of the equation." 

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