The Lightfoot Prospiracy

2019-03-05

The six years I’ve lived in Chicago have been a political education. Moving from the DC Metro Area, I expected to find a less politically active culture in my new home city, and on a federal level, that’s been the mostly true.

But a disproportionate number of my Chicago friends and acquaintances are passionate about local and state-level issues, supporting local progressive candidates with The People’s Lobby, leading environmental justice organizations like P.E.R.R.O. and LVEJO, and promoting criminal justice reform through groups like CCBF.

Chicago’s ongoing Mayoral race has reflected this diversity of political activity, featuring fourteen candidates on the ballot, nearly all promoting progressive policies of some form. Selecting just one was a daunting task, but for me, Lori Lightfoot’s support for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) helped her stand out from the pack. As I’ve written about previously, voting methods like RCV help voters more accurately express their preference (in this case, by ranking the candidates), and could allow for more progressive politicians to be elected in the future (instead of incentivizing tactical voting like our current system).

While I was excited to see Lightfoot make the upcoming runoff election (against established Chicago politician Toni Preckwinkle), I was disturbed to note that many of the aforementioned progressive activists have come out strongly against her candidacy, leveling harsh criticisms against her experience as a lawyer in city government, and I decided to look into it.

The case against Lightfoot

I’ll be drawing mainly from four separate criticisms of Lightfoot:

These four sources substantially overlap, so I’ve tried to categorize their unique claims below. The issues the authors raise are serious, with life-or-death consequences for the affected communities, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of their expressed beliefs. Criminal justice reform is a vital priority for the next mayoral administration, and a candidate who possessed the negative qualities attributed to Lightfoot would be clearly unfit to lead that process (and should probably be disqualified from holding public office in general).

But do the authors present any compelling evidence that she possesses those qualities? Let’s investigate, with legal assistance from another Facebook post by my Chicago-based lawyer friend Craig Stern.

She has a history of defending police officers

This first criticism of Lightfoot stems from her years working at Mayer Brown. From Kelly Hayes:

Lori Lightfoot has a demonstrable record of protecting killer cops and cops who’ve committed torture.

And:

Lightfoot also defended the cops against brutality lawsuits during her time working for the law firm Mayer Brown.

And from @soit_goes:

Working for law firm Mayer Brown, Lori Lightfoot DEFENDED police against brutality lawsuits.

You know it’s really bad when someone on Twitter uses ALL CAPS. But, as Craig responds:

What’s more, based on my experience, it’s quite rare for attorneys to even have a say in which cases they’re assigned to work on by their firms. The fact that Lightfoot was sometimes assigned cases involving the police over the course of 13 years worth of defense work at Mayer Brown genuinely doesn’t tell us much of anything about her policy priorities in the political realm.

@soit_goes also takes exception with her brief role representing the city in a police misconduct lawsuit:

In 2013, Lightfoot defended CPD in a lawsuit filed by the family of Christina Eilman, she was arrested at Midway during a mental health crisis. Christina was released without assistance several miles away, abducted & sexually assaulted before plummeting from a 7th-floor window.

To which Craig points out:

Defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by counsel. Defending a client is not an endorsement of the client; it’s fulfilling a vital role that our entire legal system depends upon to function.

In some ways, this is the most straightforward of the critiques against Lightfoot. The general suggestion that former lawyers should undergo a purity test based on their prior willingness to represent socially disreputable clients might sound like a good idea, but the presumption of innocence and right to counsel are constitutionally prescribed for good reason; they help to protect the freedom of the innocent from overzealous prosecution, even at the risk of potentially exonerating the guilty.

However, while providing the defense in a case as disturbing as Christina Eilman’s might not make Lightfoot a bad person, it may still be a fair criticism under the circumstances. Like any major political office, the mayor of Chicago should be held to a higher moral standard than the average trial lawyer, and in isolation, her legal career might reasonably give pause to a potential supporter.

Thankfully, her work on various police accountability boards provides more insight her criminal justice philosophy.

She lied in court to have someone deported

Before moving on, there’s one additional anecdote about Lightfoot’s early career that has garnered a lot of attention: her role in the 1999 extradition of Lars Erik Lindstrom. This was an unusual and complex legal situation (and I’m not a lawyer), but I did my best to read through the relevant case law and try to form my own understanding of the sequence of events.

In 1997, Lars Erik Lindstrom was convicted of fraud by a Norwegian court and sentenced to prison. Before his trial ended, however, he fled to the United States, and was subsequently arrested in Illinois shortly thereafter. Lightfoot, an Assistant U.S. Attorney at the time, was assigned the case, and began working on his extradition back to Norway to serve his sentence.

After nearly two years of legal wrangling and denied appeals, Lindstrom was transferred to Norwegian agents on August 19th, 1999, in preparation for a 5:00 p.m. flight home. However, at 2:20 p.m., he was granted an emergency stay by Judge Rovner of the Seventh Circuit.

After conferring with her superiors on the case, Lightfoot advised the Marshals in charge of the extradition process that the stay was “moot” (as Lindstrom was already “in Norwegian custody”), and filed a motion to lift the stay at 4:40 p.m. This motion was quickly denied, but Lindstrom’s plane still departed at 5:45 p.m. with him on board.

Judge Posner of the Seventh Circuit was critical of Lightfoot’s role in the process, stating:

It is another thing for a lawyer to defeat an opposing party’s claims by misleading the court, whether by a misrepresentation or by a pregnant omission. That is misconduct.

From this, Girl, I Guess concludes:

Lori literally lied in court to have somebody extradited (AKA deported into the hands of another country’s law enforcement).

And @soit_goes:

With issues like Chicago’s status as sanctuary city & the use of the Gang Database being central to this election, how can anyone with a call Lightfoot a progressive with a straight face when she was willing to lie in court to get someone deported?

When performing a Bayesian update based on new data, the prior probability matters a lot. Starting from a position of skepticism of or distrust in Lightfoot, the information that she was involved in a questionable extradition, for which she was officially reprimanded, might be enough to generate the criticisms above. However, it was Judge Posner’s opinion that:

Ultimately, because it felt that Lightfoot’s conduct was only an “isolated lapse” in an otherwise “unblemished” career, and because she had received “misleading advice” from her superiors, the Court concluded that she deserved only a “reprimand,” rather than a more severe sanction such as suspension or disbarment.

I tend to accept Judge Posner’s conclusion: Lightfoot should have better followed the intent of Judge Rovner’s ruling, and for that she was duly reprimanded. But in the end, the harm caused by her actions seems mostly procedural. Lindstrom might disagree, but what about the victims of his fraud in Norway, and the tax payers in both countries that had to foot the bill for his protracted attempt to escape justice?

(Also, speaking of procedural issues, why was the prosecuting attorney allowed to directly advise the Marshals instead of the Judge? That seems like a clear conflict of interest, albeit one only likely to cause problems in unusual situations like this one.)

She has been critical of progressive activists and treated the families of victims with “contempt”

In more recent history, Lightfoot has served as the administrator of CPD’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS), and later, as the head of the Chicago Police Board (CPD) and the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force (formed in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting).

During her time in these roles she came into regular contact with groups protesting police brutality, and family members of its victims. And if the criticisms are to be believed, those encounters did not go well. From Kelly Hayes:

She has publicly condemned our actions in defense of our communities and in defense of Black lives. She has treated the families of people who have been murdered by police with scorn and contempt and has done so publicly. She has threatened them with physical removal for using curse words while describing their pain and despair at public meetings. She has held hearings that have made a mockery of justice, and she could not manage to get through a high school graduation commencement speech without condemning BYP 100. Her contempt for us as activists has been very public (and I have heard far worse stories about what she has said in private)…

And @soit_goes:

In 2016, Lightfoot chastised the families of Ronald Johnson, Rekia & Bettie Jones at a Police Board hearing because of the language that they used, she even threatened to have them physically removed from the meeting. These people had their loved one’s killed in cold blood by CPD and Lori Lightfoot, this so called “police reformer”, couldn’t even empathize with their pain. Super “progressive”.

Using information from another post, I was able to track down the specific CPB meeting on February 18th, 2016 that seems to be the root of this criticism. From reading through the transcript, it’s clear that the atmosphere was tense, and emotions were (understandably) running high. It’s worth reading through the whole thing, but here are a few relevant quotes:

All of you should be ashamed of yourself. It’s ridiculous.

Based on the criticisms above, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Lightfoot said this to the victims’ families, but it was actually from Ashley Boyd (sister of Rekia Boyd), directed at the CPB. She continued:

We’ve been here month after month after month. You hear folk cry, share their pain, and you do nothing. I don’t understand it. The only way this makes sense is in the context of white supremacy, and that’s what this shit is.

From Rachel Williams:

I should look at your smug faces every month. There’s no reason we should be here. So I would like for the families of Bettie Jones, Ronnie Mann, Dakota Bright, and Rekia Boyd to stand up because you will see these families who are here. They should not be here. We should not be here. This building should not be here and so should those fuck boys in them suits be here.

From Latanya Jones, daughter of Bettie Jones:

But my thing is, y’all better do something before I do something about it, because if I have to matters in my own hand, it’s going to be hell to pay. My mama would not be living in vain, she will get justice and her voice will be heard, point blank period.

The breaking point was not the profanity or veiled threats, however, but when (after an anti-capitalist screed by Dan Fein) Babur Balon attempted to yield his time to another person, which Lightfoot objected to on procedural grounds. Balon responded:

She should have a right to talk here. They killed her son. You have no right to take away her speech right here. How can you come here talking about this bullshit? Let her speak.

And was apparently removed from the meeting. Throughout this, at least as far as can be judged by the transcript, Lightfoot responds with firm, stoic politeness. Here are all of her recorded statements to the aforementioned speakers:

Ashley Boyd. Good evening.
Your time is up now. Thank you.
Ma’am… Dorothy Holmes.
Thank you. Latoya Jones. Good evening, ma’am.
Ma’am, watch your language, please.
That’s it. Your time is up. Your time is up.
Thank you, sir. Babur Balon.
Sir, no. Sir. No. No. You did not sign up ahead of time. People must sign up ahead of time.
Sir, it’s time for you to take your leave. Please escort him out of the building, please.
No, absolutely not. We are not going to have a situation where people are coming up here –I understand –We’re not going to have a situation –

Followed by the ominous “(Crowd interruption)”. From my reading of the transcript, Lightfoot showed no “scorn and contempt”, didn’t “chastise” anyone, and only sought to have someone removed when they attempted to speak without signing up in advance. She does, however, come across as distant, and her responses lack much that could be construed for empathy.

I wasn’t there, this is just one transcript, and I am not blaming the families of the victims for their justifiable anger at a system responsible for the death of their loved ones. But if this is representative of other CPB meetings, then I also find it hard to fault Lightfoot for any shortcomings in her public demeanor.

She presided over organizations that failed to hold police accountable

But even if we absolve her of the the previous critique, did she make the most of her opportunities in police oversight to push for reform? Kelly Hayes thinks not:

Well, the facts establish that just two police officers – Detective Reynaldo Guevara and Sgt Ronald Watts – who operated with impunity under Lightfoot’s “oversight” managed to cause more wrongful convictions than occurred under Jon Burge. When the practice of disappearing people into Homan Square without their names being logged into any database increased under Emanuel, that was happening on Lori’s watch. And what did she do? Nothing.

Also from Girl, I Guess:

The biggest issue with Lightfoot is her past as the head of Chicago’s Office of Police Standards under Daley (an investigation into OPS, which covered the time that Lori was there, found a lenient pattern toward police officers) and the Police Board under Rahm. This means that the current state of policing in Chicago falls at least partially on her shoulders, and that state is… really really really bad.

And @soit_goes:

While serving as the head of the police board, Lori LIghtfoot and the Police Board did nothing to answer the calls for justice from the families of Rekia Boyd, Ronald Johnson, Quintonio LeGrier or Bettie Jones who were killed by Chicago Police Officers.

It would take more than a single post to summarize Lightfoot’s more than five years of experience heading OPS, CPB, and the Task Force, but this Chicago Reader article is a good start. On her time at OPS:

Lightfoot became chief administrator of OPS in 2002 and led it for two years. A Chicago Tribune investigation of that period revealed a pattern of cursory investigations, sometimes involving no more than a review of police reports. Lightfoot now says she made numerous recommendations to terminate officers for unjustified shootings, and that the agency for the first time recommended firing officers charged with lying in an investigation, but the recommendations were generally rejected. The problem, she says, was that the agency was part of the department it was charged with investigating.

The Tribune piece referenced goes into detail on a few specific cases, including one where Lightfoot overturned a previous ruling, finding in favor of an officer who shot and killed a teen who was attempting to steal her car, and then gave an account of the incident that contradicted the forensic evidence. This case was controversial enough to be re-opened after a 2007 investigation, but was closed again without any charges filed.

Most recently, Lightfoot’s time at CPB and the Chicago Police Accountability Task force paint a less ambiguous picture of reform. The same Tribune article details a marked change in the rate of officer termiations during her tenure:

A Tribune analysis of Police Board data showed that the panel fired roughly 75 percent of officers whose cases were decided during her service from 2015 to 2018. From 2011 through 2014, the rate was under 40 percent.

And the Task Force’s final report on the state of Chicago’s policing is brutal, systematically outlining the worst of myriad abuses, and flatly stating:

We arrived at this point in part because of racism.
We arrived at this point because of a mentality in CPD that the ends justify the means.
We arrived at this point because of a failure to make accountability a core value and imperative within CPD.
We arrived at this point because of a significant underinvestment in human capital.

The report and its recommendations were subsequently echoed by the Justice Department consent decree in 2017.

On the specific charge that Sgt. Watts and Detective Guevara “operated with impunity” under Lightfoot’s oversight, it’s worth noting that Watts was sent to federal prison in 2013, and Guevara retired in 2005. Neither of their infamous careers had significant overlap with Lightfoot’s, and the unlawful practice of “disappearing” people into CPD’s Homan Square facility, which began in 2004, gained widespread attention in the summer of 2015, mere weeks into her tenure at CPB.

She delayed Dante Servin’s CPB hearing, allowing him to resign and keep his pension

One final anecdote from Lightfoot’s CPB tenure is worth mentioning, as it gets special attention in the majority of the progressive critiques.

From Girl, I Guess:

While she was leading the Police Board, it delayed a decision for over a year, about whether to discipline Dante Servin for the murder of Rekia Boyd. Ultimately, Servin resigned right before that hearing would have taken place and therefore was able to keep his pension and avoid real discipline.

And BYP100:

However, the head of the taskforce, Lori Lightfoot, is the same person who has denied Chicago community members a direct answer on the investigation of Dante Servin–the off-duty detective that murdered Rekia Boyd– for almost a year.

And @soit_goes:

In 2015, IPRA recommended that Chicago Police Officer Dante Servin be fired for murdering Rekia Boyd. Servin shot 22 year old Rekia Boyd in the head while off duty.
Lori Lightfoot and the Police Board did nothing about Servin and he was allowed to resign and keep his pension.

And, ridiculously:

Lori Lightfoot can be seen here on the left with a smug ass look her face as activists demand justice for Rekia Boyd who was murdered by Chicago Police Officer Dante Servin.
Lightfoot & the Police Board did nothing about Servin and he was allowed to resign and keep his pension

In case you’re curious, here’s what passes for a “smug ass look” when you’re predisposed to see one:

lightfoot cpb

The implication that the CPB intentionally held back its investigation, giving Servin a chance to resign and keep his pension, would only make sense if the delay somehow allowed him to receive additional benefits that he would otherwise have been denied if he had resigned immediately.

From my cursory research, it seems like Servin (a 24 year veteran) had only a modest amount to gain from a delay of one year, since pensions benefits vest at 50% with 20 years of service, and only increase by 2.5% for each additional year (up to a maximum of 75%). And for what it’s worth, CPB documentation suggests that the delay was closer to six months, not “almost” or “over” a year.

As to why the investigation took so long, I’ll defer to Craig:

The jobs of public employees are deemed property protected by the Due Process Clause–these folks can’t just be fired. They have to be afforded a public hearing. If you look at the Rules and Regulations of the Chicago Police Department, these hearings aren’t things you just throw out there on short notice–they involve pre-hearing motions and discovery. They are like mini trials! And as anyone who practices law can tell you, it can easily take a year or more to get to trial in even relatively simple cases.

As for taking away his pension now that he’s resigned, that is not only beyond the scope of CPB’s authority, but probably an impossible demand, given state’s pension laws. Not only would Servin have retained his pension if he was found guilty of the dismissed charges (since he was off duty when he fired at Boyd), but even the notorious Jon Burge still collects his $4,000 per month.

Conclusion

So how do the various progressive criticisms of Lightfoot hold up on a scale of :x: to :100:?

Criticism Verdict Response
She has a history of defending police officers :woman_shrugging: Just like everyone else, police officers have the right to a defense. Lighfoot’s willingness to take these cases is fair game for criticism, given her political ambitions, but doesn’t necessarily signal any nefarious motives.
She lied in court to have someone deported :heavy_check_mark: Lightfoot’s actions as prosecutor, which led to the extradition of a convicted Norwegian fugitive, ran contrary to the intent of the presiding Judge, and for that she was officially reprimanded.
She has been critical of progressive activists and treated the families of victims with “contempt” :x: During at least one CPB meeting, Lightfoot asked a victim’s family member to “watch your language, please”, and had another removed for attempting to speak without registering in advance. She did not, in my opinion, show any “contempt” for the victims or activists.
She presided over organizations that failed to hold police accountable :woman_shrugging: Lightfoot’s tenure at OPS in the early 2000s seems to be a mixed bag, but contrary to the criticism, her later work on CPB and the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force supports her credentials as a police reformer.
She delayed Dante Servin’s CPB hearing, allowing him to resign and keep his pension :x: Although CPB’s investigation of Servin took six months, and was scheduled to move forward two days after he resigned, there’s no reason to suspect that Lightfoot intentionally delayed the hearing in order to allow him to keep his pension benefits.

Personal note

I didn’t spend my whole weekend researching a blog post calling out progressive activists (with whom I probably agree 90% of the time) because I enjoy this kind of thing. As my therapist and close friends can attest, I’m paralyzingly conflict averse, and do my best to stay out of emotional disagreements of all varieties.

But I’m also desperately worried about the upcoming presidential election, and reading these viral criticisms of Lightfoot has reinforced my concern that we haven’t learned much from 2016. Specifically, this kind of inflammatory, poorly-sourced, misleading vitriol might be suitable for a Fox News audience, but progressives should expect better (and the Russians are superior trolls, anyway).

It might be the case that, despite what I’ve written above, Lightfoot is, in her heart of hearts, every evil thing her progressive critics claim. No amount of research could completely disprove that, but precious little of the evidence I’ve reviewed seems to support it. If anything, reading through this echo chamber of half-truths makes me more likely to believe Lightfoot’s own account of her career, which at least has the virtue of being parsimonious.

Prospiracy theory

This whole exercise reminded me of a recent blog post on Slate Star Codex on the effectiveness of conspiracy theories. In response to the claim that:

…conspiracy theories had evolved into an almost-perfect form for exploiting cognitive biases and the pressures of social media. Debunkings and true beliefs couldn’t copy that process, so they were losing out.

Scott created several “prospiracy” theories, which use the language and imagery of conspiracy memes to support mundane reality. This is a fucking brilliant idea, as demonstrated here. And so, at the risk of alienating everyone who made it this far, here’s my attempt at a Lightfoot prospiracy:

lightfoot prospiracy

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