‘A goal without a plan’: City Hall reporter explores policing in the Lightfoot era

CHICAGO — In his recently released book, The City Is Up For Grabs, Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Royal Pratt explores how Lori Lightfoot went from winning a long-shot mayoral run to being a one-term leader who couldn’t even muster 17% of the votes.

Along the way, Pratt, who covered Lightfoot as the paper’s top City Hall reporter, examines Lightfoot’s handling of the pandemic, two rounds of riots, and her management style, which, as one alderman put it, “managed to piss off every single person they come in contact with.”

Lightfoot took office promising to be a reformer of all things, including the police department. But Pratt reminds us that Lightfoot had spent many years as a key player in the police accountability system she promised to fix. She served on the police board, and she once headed CPD’s Office of Professional Standards, the unit that investigated police shootings. OPS was so ineffectual that Mayor Richard M. Daley disbanded it after she left and replaced it with a new agency, IPRA, which has since been disbanded too.

After reading Pratt’s book, we wanted to know more about her thinking, her relationship with the police department, and how CPD performed under her leadership. He graciously fielded our questions.

A goal without a plan…

Eddie Johnson was CPD’s superintendent when Lightfoot came into office. She fired him about six months into her administration after Johnson was found unconscious behind the wheel of his car and allegations of drinking and other improprieties surfaced.

Lightfoot brought in former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck to lead the department while the city searched for a replacement. He quickly made significant structural and policy changes, including eliminating “merit promotions,” a system that allowed cops with connections to win promotions based on “merit” rather than testing. Some in the department believed Lightfoot was using Beck as the “bad guy” to make necessary, unpopular changes so her incoming permanent superintendent could start fresh.

When Lightfoot’s permanent choice, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, arrived, he promptly undid almost all of Beck’s moves, to the dismay of many people at city hall, you write. How does a decision like that come to pass?

PRATT: As some wise kids once said: “A goal without a plan is only a wish.” Lightfoot had an idea for policing —”misconduct bad, arresting criminals good” —that most people can agree with. But she didn’t have a specific, clear strategy or vision for how to achieve those things, which is how you can bring in a national figure, let them make changes, and then just sit back and let those changes be erased just as easily.

Could Brown undo Beck’s reforms without the mayor’s OK?

PRATT: No. Generally speaking, bureaucrats and people at City Hall as well as sister agencies do their job without interference from the mayor’s office but they’re usually smart enough to know what’s going to be a news story or political problem. That’s when then they’ll go to the mayor’s office to ask “Mother may I?” Lightfoot considered herself a policing expert and so folks weren’t going to make major changes without getting an okay or more. She was also very active with her “Accountability Mondays” meetings, which were pretty counterproductive as we detail in the book.

Brown claimed Beck’s changes weren’t working. What was his real motivation, according to the people you’ve spoken with?

PRATT: Beck is a big thinker about how departments work and human behavior. He told me you have to give clear direction to a bureaucracy otherwise they’ll misinterpret “either by accident or on purpose.” I got the sense Brown was a little less big picture strategic so was often reacting and doing things without a more rigorous underpinning.

An example in the book: He wanted to bring in folks for a “gang summit,” which is really antiquated. He also changed direction frequently —from a surge strategy to a citywide team strategy etc. etc. and that can confuse an organization. In my opinion, that was the difference in their styles and strategies, and why things went the way they did. As to Brown’s motivation, some City Hall hands felt he needed to “show action,” so he undid Beck stuff.

Why would the mayor, who campaigned on being a change element, go along with it?

PRATT: There’s a story in the book where Lightfoot ripped Brown publicly right after he started and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx called Brown to check on him. “I’ve never been talked to like that in my life. She needs me more than I need her,” was what he told her.

Lightfoot’s a smart person and she understands the bad optics if Brown were to leave early. Later, when rising crime trends really became clearer in 2021, I think the “I don’t want to admit a mistake” instincts kicked in.

Policing and crime were major issues throughout her administration. Why do you think Lightfoot kept Brown, despite the problems?

PRATT: Brown was an interesting choice. Fascinating person. He’s lived a hell of a life with a lot of high-profile trauma and drama, culminating in the day he authorized the killing by bomb-equipped robot of a mass shooter. She liked his decisiveness, among other qualities.

His style didn’t translate well to Chicago, however, as he never really fit in to the department or the city. (Your readers know that better than anybody.) He didn’t appear to make a great effort, either —former leadership would tell you Brown could’ve gone to a lot more roll calls, talked to more members of the community, worked with his people to show active leadership but he was perceived as being on a bit of an island. [Recently-retired Lakeview Alderman] Tom Tunney once called him out about being “aloof” and Brown pivoted blamed it on the pandemic.

As to why Lightfoot stuck with him: One of Lightfoot’s great flaws is a near total inability to admit a mistake. She had falling outs with several people who had been high-ranking staffers and even personal friends because they criticized Brown. In addition to defensiveness, there’s a real sense of denial that often permeates her thinking. Remember when she used to insist that she actually had a great relationship with most of the City Council?

The other piece of that: Her friends and allies will tell you that she grew up working class and had to fight for everything as a short Black lesbian in worlds dominated by white men so she learned at a young age to scrap. That’s all fine. Standing up for yourself is an essential survival tool. But everything isn’t a fist fight, and you don’t have to punch everybody who texts you something you disagree with in the face.

Based on the conversations you’ve had, what do experienced hands think will be necessary for CPD to experience a true breakout—a new era for the department and city?

PRATT: This is one of the great failures of the mayor’s four years. Under Lightfoot, the consent decree languished and police morale plummeted —we had problems fixing real issues in the department and fewer arrests even for the most serious crimes.

Partly because of the issues left behind by Brown and Lightfoot, Mayor Brandon Johnson turned to an insider (Larry Snelling) who is generally well-respected to lead the department. That’s not a bad thing —he legitimately has wide respect. But the morale and leadership hole he’s digging out of is bigger than what Brown inherited from Eddie Johnson, so the first priority is putting out fires. A lot of good people left the department over the past four years and that’s a challenge that makes it harder to do more substantive overhauls in the near-term.

One thing that’s concerning to a lot of old hands and department watchers is that Snelling hasn’t hired a first deputy yet. As a reporter, I often highlight vacancies in important positions because there is too much work to not have key roles filled. He’s been there longer than half a year while spreading himself thin and that isn’t sustainable or good for an organization.

What insiders say is that the bench was decimated over the past few years, and developing talent is a big priority. More broadly, there’s a sense that the department needs leadership that understands that Chicago Police does need to operate more professionally like some of its big city peers.

I think back to something Beck told me about why it’s important for police leaders to do stints in different places: “It’s like if you stayed in the same school all your life. All you know is your school. That doesn’t give a broad enough experience.”

Finally, organizations need a culture where they’re encouraged and rewarded for good work, allowed to learn when they make honest mistakes, and disciplined appropriately for misconduct. That balance is something that, as I understand it, the department is still striving toward. That’s part of why Brown’s decision to undo Beck’s merit promotion moves was so detrimental—taking away the culture that incentivizes good performance in favor of something that people think is all politics.

Lightfoot wrote a lot of things that probably should have stayed in her drafts folder. You dug many of them up through FOIA requests and reported on them during her administration, yet she kept doing it. Were you surprised that Lightfoot, an attorney, put such things in writing? Why do you think she continued to do it even when she knew you were watching?

PRATT: This is a fun story. For many many months, I kept requesting Lightfoot’s text messages with a variety of people, whether it was on her personal device or a city device. They kept responding that there was nothing on her city-issued device.

I’d ask, what about her personal? And they’d simply refuse to answer the question or address it. It was a rhetorical sleight of hand. Felt like they were hoping I was too stupid to notice. Eventually, I asked our editors and lawyers to raise hell, they threatened to sue, and the city government finally acknowledged she was texting about city business and started turning documents over.

When they finally released a trove of texts in late 2021, I thought: “Wow, she’s probably going to stop texting now.” But, of course, she didn’t. Initially, I assumed she texted the way she did because she didn’t think it would ever come out. Now I just think it was a lack of self-discipline.

What were Lightfoot’s finest moments, in your estimation? What were the instances when she was the right person in the right job at the right time?

PRATT: She was absolutely right to advocate for vaccine equity at the height of COVID. Too many Black and brown people died due to COVID and then due to vaccine hesitancy. A lot more would’ve died if she and Dr. Allison Arwady hadn’t prioritized efforts to get Black and brown people vaccinated.

I think she was right about the need to reform Chicago City Hall, where far too often, projects get bullied by aldermen like Ed Burke and other folks who abuse prerogative. But she had a lot less success there, partly for lack of strategy.

When did you decide to write a book about Lightfoot’s mayorship? Can you remember a specific incident when the lightbulb first went off—”This is a book?”

PRATT: I became the Tribune’s top City Hall reporter at the start of Lori Lightfoot’s term as mayor after having been junior member of the team for Rahm Emanuel’s last year. Writing a book about City Hall was always an idea in my head. The thought was simple: “What happens when an outsider with limited government experience and a reform agenda takes over city government?”

Then COVID and the George Floyd unrest happened, and it became clearer still that the city was going through some of its toughest moments and the story would be worth a deep look.

There are a couple distinct moments that felt momentous. I remember being in the office in March 2020 when our editors were scrambling to figure out what was happening with schools and COVID—some were voluntarily closing, but it was chaotic. I called a trusted source to find out what Pritzker would be doing and then rushed over to the editor leading the charge. “Pritzker is closing all the schools,” I said. She looked at me and exhaled.

In May 2020, during the start of the riots, I was on furlough. That Sunday, I came off. My editor called first thing in the morning and asked if I wanted to go out. I said yes and drove all over the South Side as looting spread like wildfire. If you were just watching on television or through the newspapers, you knew it was bad, but I saw it from the ground and it was worse than people remember. Lightfoot summed it up well when she texted me that night: “Utterly depressing.” There’s a lot in the book that matters, but the protests and riots and how the city failed to plan properly is one of the more important pieces.

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About Tim Hecke 300 Articles
Tim Hecke is CWBChicago's managing partner. He started his career at KMOX, the legendary news radio station in St. Louis. From there, he moved on to work at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. Tim went on to build syndicated radio news and content services that served every one of America's 100 largest radio markets. He became CWBChicago's managing partner in 2019. His email address is tim@cwbchicago.com