Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Policing Reform

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Policing Reform

Podcast In the Public Interest

Episode Guests

In This Episode

US Commission on Civil Rights Commissioner and WilmerHale Partner Debo Adegbile and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot discuss the US Conference of Mayors’ blueprint for improving policing and promoting equal justice in America’s cities. The interview highlights the challenges of balancing the need to ensure public safety with crafting necessary reforms that protect people’s civil rights. They discuss the polarizing concept of defunding the police, the impact of COVID-19 on public safety, the importance of mayors having a seat at the table for city policymaking, and the critical responsibility of both police departments and communities in ensuring peace. 

Topics covered:

  • The US Conference of Mayors’ August release of a Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice.
  • WilmerHale served as counsel to the working group that developed the blueprint.
  • Lightfoot’s professional background in law.
  • Bringing policymaking to the city level, not just the federal level. 
  • Defunding the police versus ensuring an equitable distribution of resources in communities.
  • Reexamining the job description for police officers.
  • The impact of COVID-19 on public safety.
  • Communities’ impatience following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and how the public can play a role in putting into action the blueprint from the US Conference of Mayors’ report.
  • The Trump Administration’s view of police reform and civil unrest in contrast with that of the Obama Administration and other administrations.

Read the Episode Transcript

Subscribe to podcast


Episode Transcript

Expand All Collapse All
  • Transcript


    Speakers: John Walsh, Brendan McGuire, Debo Adegbile and Lori Lightfoot

    McGuire: In our first episode, I am joined by WilmerHale Partner Debo Adegbile and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for a look behind the scenes of the 2020 U.S. Conference of Mayors to get her take on the future of policing and racial justice reform. This interview was recorded in mid-October before the election. We hope you enjoy it.

    McGuire: We are absolutely thrilled that our very first guest on the WilmerHale podcast is Lori Lightfoot, the Mayor of Chicago. Mayor Lightfoot is the 56th mayor of Chicago and has become a national authority on for her work on improving policing and promoting equal justice in America's cities. We are also joined today by my partner, Debo Adegbile, the co-chair of our anti-discrimination practice and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Debo and a team from WilmerHale recently assisted Mayor Lightfoot and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a non-partisan organization of cities across the country in drafting a report with practical recommendations to address police reform and racial justice. Mayor Lightfoot and Debo, thank you both for being here today. Debo, I will turn it over to you and the Mayor.

    Adegbile: Thanks so much, Brendan and welcome Mayor Lightfoot. Thanks for joining us.

    Mayor Lightfoot: My pleasure.

    Adegbile: Mayor Lightfoot, you have substantial experience in dealing with law enforcement and policing and have been immersed in these issues in many different capacities. First as a federal prosecutor, then as the chief administrator for the Chicago Police Department's office of professional standards, and later as the chair of the police accountability task for and now, of course, as Mayor. In light of all of these experiences, I'd like you to describe how they've contributed to your readiness to be Mayor and then speak to how these experiences shape your understanding of policing and public safety.

    Mayor Lightfoot: Well, having seen a range of different issues that confront us on a daily basis from a lot of different angles, I feel like it gives me broad experience and perspective to really work through the nuances of policy and other issues. I also, because of the experience that I've had in the area of policing, know a lot of the folks that are really on the front lines and pressing on police reform and accountability issues which are still front and center of the some of the challenges that we face in our city. I also say just generally that my experience as a lawyer and problem solving really helping clients work through some of their most difficult issues whether they were public or not. I think that experience also has really significantly aided me as a mayor. It probably drives my law department a little crazy because I speak their language and I ask hard questions but I feel like my background and experience has prepared me, not for a global pandemic, because I don't think anybody expected that but in managing and navigating some of the toughest issues knowing that we've got to think about things in a very holistic way, understand who the stakeholders are, what the ecosystem is so a lot of those nuts and bolts of how do you get from where you are to where you want to be and who do you need to bring along on the journey with you? I've had a lot of experience in addressing those issues.

    Adegbile: So, I take it that you've brought all of that to your leadership role this summer in heading up the working group of the Conference of Mayors on policing and racial justice reform. Can you tell us a little bit about what work the working group undertook and what that process was all about?

    Mayor Lightfoot: Well, yes. Number one, I think one of the primary missions and values of the conference is making sure that mayors are at the table when big issues are happening, particularly issues that affect governance of cities. Sometimes policies are formulated at the national level without enough consideration of how they're actually going to be implemented at the local level and what role mayors are going to play. So, when this conversation really took flight around police reform and accountability, what we were seeing at the national level was not a lot of consideration for mayors—having us at the table and making sure that our voices were in the policies that were being formulated by the federal government. So we took this as an opportunity to really step up and put down a marker both in terms of policy making and making sure that we were all at the table but also to equip our fellow mayors with a really nuts and bolts and pragmatic resource guide as they were grappling with these issues. No city is in the same place. Were all at a different point on that journey but we wanted to make sure that we had something that was practical and relevant for mayors and police chiefs as they grappled with the issues that were going on in cities and towns all across this country.

    Adegbile: And who was on the working group?

    Mayor Lightfoot: So the working group was divided between three mayors. Myself, Mayor John Cranley of Cincinnati, and Jane Castor of Tampa who also has the unique experience of previously having been the police chief in Tampa and now the mayor of the city, as well as police chiefs from Phoenix, from Baltimore, and from South Carolina. So we got a very well rounded, I think, and robust discussion and of course the work of WilmerHale was essential in helping us really get organized, formulate our policies and I think, aside from really taking a labouring roar and drafting the final report, WilmerHale was really invaluable in giving us the best practices from across the country on a range of different issues that the working group was grappling with.

    Adegbile: I'm often struck that when people focus on police reform and in particular when minority communities in black and LatinX communities are calling for fair and equitable policing and a meaningful reset of the police community relationship, some read those calls to mean that these communities have a different objective regarding their public safety. Recognizing that all communities vary in some meaningful ways, what's your view?

    Mayor Lightfoot: Well that's a great question and I think it's a very nuanced discussion, so I'll try to give a nuanced answer. You know this as well as I do, the people who raise their voices the loudest are not necessarily representative of the community and I'll give you a perfect example. Here in Chicago, like across the country, there's been a tremendous outpouring around police reform and accountability. A lot of people marching in the streets, some groups issuing a series of demands, some not, so trying to figure out where the different streams of conversation are going has been a challenge but interestingly, we had an incident on our city's south side a majority black neighborhood, Englewood, that's seen a lot of violence. But, it's also a neighborhood that's got a lot of engaged and active stakeholders and they actively work with the police and challenge the police to do better but partner with them on initiatives that are driven by the community. There were a group of youthful protestors that came down to this Englewood neighborhood following an incident involving the police with their own ideas about what should happen and they ended up in conflict with the indigenous stakeholders in that neighborhood who effectively said we don't need you, you're not from here, you don't know what's going on in our neighborhood. Please leave. And it was in a lot less polite terms than that. I thought that was really interesting and instructive. One because this community was taking ownership of its own narrative around police reform and accountability but it also told me that this group that came from the outside who had been extraordinarily vocal and making lots and lots of demands and really trying to paint the conversation as black or white, literally and figuratively, really didn't have a pulse on at least one neighborhood and I knew that but it was helpful and instructive for that to actually be played out in the public view. So when I hear these calls for defunding—because I've engaged with a lot of people on this particularly you've got some democratic socialists on our city council. I've accepted them, tell me what you mean by this and do you literally mean you do not want any police in your ward because I can make that happen with a pen stroke and universally it was like "no, no, no, Mayor, don't do that," but I think what I’m really hearing sorting through a lot of the noise is people saying we are sick and tired of not getting funded. We are sick and tired of being defunded, we're sick and tired of our needs as a community not being a funding and resource priority by city government and we need jobs, we need good schools, we need healthcare, we need all the things that a lot of communities take for granted but they are scarce or non-existent supplies in our communities and I agree with that which is why I ran on a platform of equity inclusion and seeing the entirety of our city not just a wealthy, majority white business and neighborhoods. Now we're not going to be able to reverse those trends of decades in a year or a couple of budgets but we've laid down important markers here in our city and we need to do a better job of articulating what it is that we have been doing in partnership with the community. But, really, this is about equitable distribution of resources, making sure the community voices are at the table from the beginning of these important discussions.

    Adegbile: Thank you for that and I want to follow up, because you raised the point of defunding and we are hearing a lot of talk in the context of police reform about folks who are calling for defunding and you've spoken to it but I wanted to note that the Conference of Mayors report does not call for defunding but instead uses language about reimagining policing and rethinking about funding is approached. Can you explain to us what that is? What is reimagining policing and can you confront the question of whether there's a need to reallocate any funding that's within police budgets?

    Mayor Lightfoot: Well, look, to me, it's not an either/or proposition. It's not fund the police and defund the community or fund the community and defund the police. It goes back to what I said before which is making sure that there is an equitable distribution of resources so that communities have the tools that they need to be able to be vibrant and safe. That's really bottom line what the goal should be, which is why I think the Conference and I personally don't agree with this notion of defunding. I think we've got to figure out ways, and we can, to do both. To hold police departments accountable, not think that as a policing and really a public safety strategy that we put all of our eggs in law enforcement first and only basket. You know this that when you think about public safety and you think about the ecosystem of various levers that have to be pulled in order to create safe and vibrant and peaceful neighborhoods you've got to use hard power, which is law enforcement, but you also really have to lean into the soft power. And that's the piece that a lot of this defunding conversation is really emanating from is making sure that the soft power is used, that community voices are going into this discussion about what it take for a community to feel safe and I also want to say that the thing that I certainly have learned, I recently went back and looked at a speech that I gave at my law school in the fall of 2014 and this was in the wake of, you know a lot of things that were happening nationally at that point, and I remember having a lot of discussion leading up to that speech about what is the appropriate job description for the police? And one thing that's been clear as budgets have gotten tight at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level, the first thing to go is shredding of the social safety net. In other words, we haven't funded the things that we need to fund to stand up communities and really give individuals and families and neighborhoods the tools that they need to be able to realize their God-given talent, but the one actor from the government that is consistently present in communities is the police and by default and really as a result of our neglect we have pushed off on the police a lot of responsibilities that they never signed up for, that they've never been trained for, and they’re not the best answer to solve a community need. So I think part of the thing that we wanted to really raise a conversation around through the a conference report is what's the proper role of the police? What should be the job description and who should be the first responder when the community calls?

    Adegbile: One of the issues that many mayors, including you, are confronting is that this year in some of our cities there's been a sharp increase in violent crime, murders and shootings. This is an issue that you've faced in Chicago. It's happening to some extent in other cities and in light of these spikes is it possible to strike a balance between the priority being placed on meaningful police reform and the urgent need to drive down violent crime which, itself, very often has dramatic impacts in communities of color or is there attention here that can or cannot be reconciled?

    Mayor Lightfoot: Well, that's a great question. And let me to take a moment to, I think, contextualize it. We cannot overstate the incredible impact that COVID-19 has had on public safety. Now it may not seem like an obvious connection but let me tease out why I think that that's so. I said earlier that thinking about public safety, we have to think about the entire ecosystem. That ecosystem has many important parts. Of course, it's law enforcement. Police, our federal partners, the criminal courts, the criminal prosecutors, those are all a part of the ecosystem but equally important are other elements some of which are specifically focused on public safety and others that add to public safety like street intervention, right, those are the folks that are on the front lines helping connect up the folks that are involved with gangs, the shooters with a way out and hoping to end the potential retaliation so a lot of the spikes in violence in our city is gun violence, and it’s gun violence that is a cycle of retaliation. A tit for tat so street intervention is critical in stopping that but equally important are community-based organizations whether it's a YWCA, whether it's a boys and girls club, whether it's a faith community that has food pantries and does a lot of outreach, whether addiction supports, mental health providers. Every part of the public safety ecosystem has been dramatically impacted such that they pared back their offering. They have tried to struggle to provide services in a digital virtual world with limited success and in Chicago at least many of these resources including the federal grand jury, including our jails, including our prosecutors but also a call for social safety net really didn't start to come back online until late July. So the spikes that we've seen here—and I suspect that it’s a similar story in New York or Baltimore or St. Louis or the other places across the country that have also seen historic spikes—the ecosystem has been impacted by COVID because individuals have been sick, they've ben fearful and organizations and institutions have had to pair back and recalibrate how they deliver services in the midst of a global pandemic.

    Adegbile: So, as I think about the community calls for police reform and all that we've seen in the wake of George Floyd I think that part of what we're hearing is a bit of community impatience and a concern that some of these situations have recurred. There have been efforts and pushes in the past and I think it's fair to say that there have been many many reports that have led to a working consensus about what best practices are in police and community relations and yet sometimes change seems to be slow. And so I think that FDR once said to some folks that were pressing him on an issue of importance in his day the President said, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” And so in the context of that quote how can the public that you've mentioned so many times as being an important piece in this story, how can the public play a meaningful role in helping insure that the Conference of Mayors member cities embrace the reforms an practices that your report sets out?

    Mayor Lightfoot: Well I think they're doing it already. You've mentioned at the outset that I had led the police accountability task force here in our city. That task force was stood up in the wake of a video showing a murder of a young black man by a white police officer and when we started digging in and looking at what had happened over the arc of our city we found, I think it was nine other efforts going back to the early part of the 20th century where there had been a flash point, some kind of blue ribbon panel was stood up, a lot of recommendations, well intentions and then nothing. And we made a determination that our report was not going to be relegated to the dust bin of history, but I think the moment that we're in now is very, very different than moments that we've been in before. We have not only this horrific murder of George Floyd, but Breonna Taylor. You have so many instances whether it's police involved violence or otherwise where people of color have been killed have been attacked and seemingly on the part of some with impunity, with no accountability, and unlike I think in previous times, this has happened all across the country. It's not isolated and it's happening in close proximity to each other across the country. And I think that the people that have taken to the streets that are demanding that we respond have done a great service to all of us by not only just pricking our consciousness but demanding accountability and demanding change. There's a reason why there have been U.S. Conference of Mayors and a lot of other organizations that have weighed in on this issue. There's a reason why legislation has moved at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level to address these issues. I don't think that this is going to be a situation where the embers cool and we walk away without much to show for it. I think it's in a very, very different time because of the horrific nature of George Floyd's murder, but the horrific nature of others who came before George Floyd, others that have come after George Floyd and people's consciousness being raised and demanding an expectation of change and accountability of a part of public leaders that we ignore at our peril.

    Adegbile: Mayor, I have one final question for you. The Trump administration has a particular approach to local policing and the federal relationship with local police departments.

    Mayor Lightfoot: That's a very polite way putting it, yes.

    Adegbile: I'm sure you're familiar with it. The Obama administration had its own approach to federal and local policing relations and support. I'm not going to ask you to give either administration a grade. Instead as we are in the midst of a presidential election, I'm going to ask you what your view is about what the proper calibration between the federal government's role and local policing efforts ought to be.

    Mayor Lightfoot: It's another great question and I'll answer it this way. The extreme of “you're on your own” doesn't work, and we've seen that over the last four years. I look back even before the Obama administration to when the federal government first started getting involved in addressing pattern practices. Under the Clinton administration and under the Janet Reno Department of Justice that was on the other end of the spectrum and I think there were things that didn't work in that approach either. But where I would say we really need a federal partner is first and foremost to listen to us. To understand the current state of affairs and the challenges that we are facing. We need supports but we of course when necessary we need to be held accountable. But I've spend a lot of time talking to mayors across the country and I think most of us whether we are Democrat or Republican or Independent or non-partisan the fundamental responsibility that we have to our cities is public safety and obviously police departments play a role in that. But policing won't have any legitimacy if it doesn't have the hearts and minds of the people who the police are sworn to serve and protect. So, we need a federal government that understands that, that is willing to work with us, not in a one size fits all approach, not one extreme or another, but charting a course that fundamentally is about supporting and uplifting communities all with the goal towards making sure that all of our residents no matter their background, no matter their circumstances get to live in peace. If those are the guiding stars then we're always going to find the right approach. 

    Adegbile: Mayor Lightfoot, thank you so much for your time and I wish the residents of Chicago the ability to live in peace and I know you wish it for us in New York and across the nation.

    Mayor Lightfoot: Thank you so much.

    McGuire: That brings us to the end of today's episode. Thank you, Mayor Lightfoot and Debo for sharing your time and your insights with us today. We are grateful to have two such accomplished leaders join us for our inaugural episode. And thanks to our listeners for joining us on “In the Public Interest.” We hope to see you on our next episode. 

More from this series


Unless you are an existing client, before communicating with WilmerHale by e-mail (or otherwise), please read the Disclaimer referenced by this link.(The Disclaimer is also accessible from the opening of this website). As noted therein, until you have received from us a written statement that we represent you in a particular manner (an "engagement letter") you should not send to us any confidential information about any such matter. After we have undertaken representation of you concerning a matter, you will be our client, and we may thereafter exchange confidential information freely.

Thank you for your interest in WilmerHale.