Chicago, IL

Chicago Mayor Under Fire for Secretly Lobbying for Qualified Immunity Which Prevents Police From Being Held Accountable

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot lobbied against attempts to end qualified immunity for police officers which would increase their accountability for use of excessive force and other civil rights violations.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is being heavily criticized for secretly lobbying against efforts to put an end to qualified immunity for police officers in cases involving excessive force and other civil right violations. Qualified immunity is a legal principle that grants police officers immunity from being held liable in civil suits involving officers who cause unconstitutional harm.

Despite strong legislative and grassroots support in Chicago, documents have come to light that show that Mayor Lightfoot and her staff began lobbying against efforts to ban the practice last summer. The mayor instructed staffers to gather data on qualified immunity in order to prepare for "the push during budget to ‘defund’ the police" according to one document which included emails between Lightfoot and her staff. She also reportedly had the city Corporation Counsel analyse the outcomes from police lawsuits from 2009 through 2019 in an attempt to obtain data that would support the case for keeping qualified immunity.

Reports also revealed that civil rights lawsuits involving police misconduct have cost the city of Chicago over $500 million since 2009. The individuals officers charged were responsible for paying only $2 million of this amount as part of settlements. Documents showed that Mayor Lightfoot’s personal staff has lobbied the office of several state senators including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to convince them that qualified immunity is not a barrier to holding officers accountable for the actions.

The payouts ranged from as little as a few hundred dollars to thousands for illegal searches, brutality, false arrests and other unconstitutional actions. In one case that settled for $11,000, a man was strip searched and had a gun put in his mouth during an interrogation. Another payout was for $100,000 in a case that involved officers falsely arresting a man, and shooting his dog twice. The highest payout was for $200,000 that involved officers ransacking a home during an illegal search, and breaking numerous items all while shielding their faces and badge numbers from home security cameras.

Mayor Lightfoot has been heavily criticised for failing to act to reform the Chicago Police Department over her years in office. In 2002, she ruled that an off duty officer was justified in fatally shooting a black teen when she headed the city’s Office of Professional Standards. She failed to support an investigation in 2015 when appointed to a task force after Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke shot another black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times, looking the other way when then Mayor Emanual covered up the shooting by refusing to release a video.

Following McDonald’s death, a Department of Justice investigation into Chicago police delivered a blistering report that found an epidemic use of racist, excessive force as well as corruption among officers. Yet, it took over four years for the officer to be held accountable and then only because bodycam footage was finally released. The officer had over 20 citizen complaints filed against him in 13 years, eight of which were for excessive force, none of which he was disciplined for by the police department.

The Chicago mayor has not been unwilling to support police reform verbally. In 2016 Lightfoot issued a scathing report on the CPD, addressing broken trust between police and community and saying that: “A painful but necessary reckoning is upon us.” The report called for massive change and backed a “widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color”. In 2018, she quit her job as president of the Police Board and announced her candidacy for mayor running on a police reform platform, stating:

“We’ve got to treat the homicide rate as a public health crisis. We’ve got to institute real measures to bring investment and economic developments to these neighborhoods. We've got to stop treating black and brown folks like they're expendable. A militarized response to the violence isn’t what people want, and more to the point, it’s not effective.” However, in the two years since she has been Mayor, Lightfoot has been criticized for failing to take action that makes real change and reforms the Chicago Police Department.

“I view her as not having fulfilled those campaign promises, because she hasn’t,” said Chicago’s first ward alderman Daniel La Spata.

Despite the Mayors efforts, Illinois continues to move towards revoking qualified immunity for police officers. House Bill 1727, introduced by Rep. Curtis J. Tarver, D-Chicago, has recently made it past the committee and is waiting to be voted on. The bill would create the Bad Apples in Law Enforcement Accountability Act, which intends to remove the Illinois court doctrine of qualified immunity for officers. It will open officers up to civil litigation if they participate in depriving anyone of their individual rights guaranteed in the Illinois Constitution. The bill includes a provision which would also make the new law applicable to officers who fail to take action if they witness a deprivation occurring. Rep. Tarver and others supporting the bill hope that it will be signed into law by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker by the end of May.

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