When mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot makes her pitch to Chicago voters, the former federal prosecutor frequently recounts her record of working to reform the city’s police department.
Lightfoot led a task force under outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel that called out the department for a history of racial discrimination and suggested far-reaching remedies in a 2016 report when criticism of police practices intensified following the police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Chicago’s next mayor will enter office as the city prepares to implement a federal consent decree that aims to overhaul how the department operates.
She also headed the Chicago Police Board, the department’s civilian oversight body charged with disciplining police officers, but stepped down from that post last spring to enter the mayor’s race.
In a recent tweet, Lightfoot stressed her reform credentials by pointing to data she said showed the police board under her watch was increasingly aggressive in getting rid of cops accused of misconduct.
“In hearings between 2011 and July 2015, the board fired 37% of officers” read a graphic included in her tweet. It continued: “Lori was president of the police board between July 2015 and April 2018. In hearings during that time period, the Police Board fired 72% of officers.”
The graphic also highlighted a related disciplinary statistic: “15% of officers (with pending disciplinary cases) chose to resign from CPD rather than face the board” in the years before Lightfoot’s tenure. “When Lori was president, the number of officers who chose to resign rather than face the board doubled, from 15% to 30%.”
Such sharp increases in the share of discharges and resignations sounded like the result of a significant leap in officer discipline, so we decided to check it out.
When we reached out to Lightfoot’s campaign, a spokeswoman sent us disciplinary data summaries from the Chicago Police Board that back up Lightfoot’s comparison of discharge case results before she headed the police board and those from during her tenure.
The summaries make clear that Lightfoot is referencing two separate but related sets of numbers. The 72 percent figure refers to the share of officers whose cases went to a hearing and then were discharged after the board found them guilty of misconduct. The 30 percent figure deals with the share of all discharge cases referred to the board that ended in a resignation before a hearing took place.
As Police Board president and Police Accountability Task Force chair, I took on tough challenges and won critical reforms on police reform—but there is much more to do. I’ll keep fighting for change and accountability every day. pic.twitter.com/fNkT81oMpU
— Lori Lightfoot (@LightfootForChi) March 5, 2019
The board documents also back up Lightfoot’s claims about firings and resignations in the four plus years prior to her taking over the board.
But there’s another way to look at the data that takes some of the edge off her claim of increased disciplinary rigor. The board’s total caseload is so small that adding or subtracting even a handful of cases can significantly alter the disciplinary scorecard if expressed in percentage terms.
Lightfoot served as president of the board for less than three years, and during that time a total of 47 discharge cases were either heard by the panel or resolved before a hearing was held. In the comparable time period before Lightfoot took over, the board dealt with 63 discharge cases.
The hard count of officers fired increased incrementally from 19 during the comparable period before Lightfoot to 21 during her time as president. In percentage terms, however, that translated into a big jump because the board heard fewer cases than in the past.
To be clear, the lower number of cases that reached the board during Lightfoot’s time was beyond her control. After allegations of officer misconduct have been made and vetted by one of several investigative bodies, it’s up to the police department’s superintendent to recommend cases to the board. But the fact that these variables play such a large role in the percentage increase Lightfoot touted suggests it’s less a yardstick of her effectiveness as a disciplinarian and more of a math problem.
Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on police accountability, told us so many factors affect police discipline data that it’s problematic to focus on any one when evaluating the performance of a department or those who oversee it.
“It’s a statistical swamp,” he said.