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Media Coverage

Q&A: A Mayer Brown Lawyer Takes On the Chicago Police Department

25 May 2016
The American Lawyer

Mayer Brown litigation partner Lori Lightfoot stepped into an explosive situation when she agreed last December to head a task force examining police misconduct in Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel formed the task force shortly after a video was released that showed police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014, as McDonald walked away from police.

Van Dyke, who was responding to reports that someone was damaging cars, fired all but one of the shots as the 17-year-old African American teen lay motionless on the street. Before the video emerged, the police had falsely claimed that the officer was defending himself against an attack.

The video sparked outrage: Chicago citizens marched in protest and demanded the resignation of top police officials. Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder and the city has agreed to pay $5 million to McDonald’s family.

For four months, Lightfoot—a former federal prosecutor and one-time police department employee who investigated police shootings and other uses of  force—oversaw a comprehensive investigation of police practices in Chicago. The task force, which included lawyers from Chicago’s Hinshaw & Culbertson as well as Mayer Brown, interviewed more than 100 people, reviewed reams of records, and held four community forums.

The group’s 190-page report, issued April 13, was unvarnished. The “hard truth, it said, is that the city’s police department was plagued with racism and “systemic and sanctioned practices” had led to citizens’ deaths and other rights violations. Particularly disturbing was its finding that of the 404 shootings by police officers between 2008 and 2015, 74 percent of those shot or killed were black. (Roughly a third of Chicago’s residents are black.) Among other things, the task force recommended the creation of a community group with oversight of the police department and the appointment of a dedicated inspector general to review police activity.

Lightfoot talked to The Am Law Daily this week about her role on the task force and the group’s work.

Am Law Daily: Did you have any reservations about taking this on?

Lori Lightfoot: I knew it would be time-consuming. I wanted the full support of the firm. I said the mayor had to talk to our chairman, Paul Theiss, and get his full support. As an African American I wanted to make sure I could do justice to the anger and frustration of so many in the community.

ALD: Why did you have the mayor talk to the chairman?

LL: I knew it would be a significant undertaking that would take me away from client chargeable work. I wanted to make sure management was comfortable having me take this on. Law firms are brand sensitive. There was no way of knowing if I took on this responsibility if it would lead to people coming to our door to protest.

Mayer Brown has a long history as a civic leader and providing pro bono for the government. It's in our DNA to say yes.

ALD: You’ve investigated police misconduct in the past. Were you surprised by anything you found in this investigation?

LL: More than 70 percent of those shot or killed by police were African Americans. I had a sense there was a disparity, but I was surprised how significant it was. As an African-American, looking at these numbers, it was so shocking. What surprised me was that seemingly no one in city government had wrapped their arms around this and done something about it. That was distressing.

ALD: Have you had bad experiences with the police yourself?

LL: I would not compare my experience with people who were killed or injured, but I had an experience recently where I was verbally abused. In the midst of working on the task force, a woman in a car ahead of me had been hit head-on by a landscaping truck and the driver took off. I flagged down the police to get assistance. The officer started screaming at me to get out of the street or she would arrest me. She came at me like I was committing a crime when I was trying to be a good Samaritan. I did as I was told. She was nasty and asked for my ID. After checking my ID, I could only think she figured out who I was. Her attitude was as different as night from day. It made me think a lot about what I had heard from others about police abuse.

ALD: How many hours did you spent on the task force?

LL: I couldn’t tell you. I worked from early December to the middle of April, seven days a week. I was still practicing but my primary focus was on this project.

ALD: What were the public hearings like?

LL: Every hearing had a different texture but the common thread was intense anger and frustration. People had a lot of skepticism [about the task force], putting it politely. They were skeptical that what we were doing would make any difference.

ALD: What has been the reaction to the report?

LL: We've had such an overwhelmingly positive response.  The report was warmly received by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating the police department. The police union has not been particularly happy. I think we struck exactly the appropriate balance unmasking some very hard truths. 

ALD: What was Mayor Emanuel’s reaction?

LL: We did a briefing for the mayor the day of the rollout. He continues to work his way through some of the main recommendations. The mayor wrote a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times embracing three things we recommended: the creation of a civilian oversight board, the creation of public safety inspector general, and getting rid of the existing Independent Police Review Authority. It's a very tough report. I don't know many politicians that would wrap their arms around a lot of these issues. He has slowly started to do that.

Reprinted with permission from the May 25, 2016 edition of The Am Law Daily © 2016 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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    Lori E. Lightfoot
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