Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Department, and Public Communication

When a Chicago cop shot and killed 13 year-old Adam Toledo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially supported CPD's and States Attorneys' declaration that Toledo had been armed. But Adam Toledo did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, which the video makes clear. Lightfoot's blunder tells us a lot about the difficulties in leaders' public communication when having to speak for, cheerlead, or otherwise defend powerful police forces and their way of doing things. 

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio's struggles with NYPD are the stuff of legend, and have raised questions about what police are allowed to do in response to criticism from elected officials. Policing itself is political, and the politics of the police clash with the policies of municipal governments in major cities throughout the United States. Lightfoot's relationship with CPD isn’t any different. 

It's unlikely that the Mayor would deliberately lie about this even if she had wanted to appease the CPD. But her response was about as bad as it could be in the wake of such a genuine tragedy. That the murder and Lightfoot's public misstep happened atop a sharp upswing in especially offensive police killings and near-killings, all during the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, only added fuel to the fire. 

Though not the primary issue within this breakdown — policing, generally — it is notably that political communications specialists have continued to fail so atrociously throughout the past year. Importantly, this is related to, rather than separate from, the failures going on in U.S. policing. 

A 152-page report released just eight weeks ago described, as the Washington Post put it, "a plague of communication breakdowns" in the Lightfoot administration. And a brand new story by ProPublica's Mick Dumke describes Lightfoot as impatient and overly critical of well-meaning and admired city leaders like Andre Vasquez, a first-term alderman with a pressing agenda to help homeless and soon-to-be-evicted city residents. In one meeting, the Mayor attacked Vasquez for over a minute in order to minimize his request for emergency rental assistance. Lightfoot said the issue wasn't "a good use of our time," a statement of remarkable arrogance and aloofness coming from someone who ran on a progressive agenda.

But Mayor Lightfoot may be turning a corner after hitting rock bottom on both the shooting of Adam Toledo and another matter: the inexcusably brutal and mistaken police raid at the home of social worker Anjanette Young in 2019 which occurred before Lightfoot took office as Mayor. Cops raided Young's home based on incorrect information. Naked and then partially covered, Young kept insisting they had the wrong place, and they did. A series of misjudgments and mishandlings in the city legal department — which Lightfoot says she was "blindsided" by — soon followed. City attorneys tried to block the video from being shown to the public. Top attorney Mark Flessner was forced to resign. Eventually Young sued both the police and the Mayor, alleging a (very believable) "conspiracy and cover up between the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Office of Police Accountability and the Mayor’s Office.”

In many ways, Lightfoot's initial response to the police assault of Anjanette Young presaged her response to the shooting of Adam Toledo. But with the Young catastrophe, she has changed course and done so even though she is getting sued and would likely be better off if she were to simply stop talking about it. Skeptics might say that this apology only came when it became clear that Ms. Young intended to sue the city and the CPD. That lawsuit has now commenced. Perhaps this strategy was created to place blame on CPD, which it certainly has coming given its history. Lightfoot has also "falsely said her administration had not received a Freedom of Information Act request from Young." Still, I'm noticing in Lightfoot's language a more open level of contrition. Using words like "deeply sorry" and "humiliation and trauma" make clear the Mayor's intention to read the incident as reality. "It simply should not have happened," Lightfoot said, conceding some ground that might even be used against the city in the lawsuit. 

The Mayor also describes her own interpersonal reaction to the video, which she says she watched "in absolute horror. I showed it to my wife. We both thought about what could happen to us if we were in her circumstance." Even if that's not true, it builds a sense of empathy. Most importantly, Lightfoot says "this happens to Black and Brown people disproportionately." This is an acknowledgement that police brutality is systemic and racist, something that even liberal mayors in large cities have been reluctant to say historically. 

In many ways, the tasks and skills of a successful municipal political candidate don’t always translate to skills in office. For example, being able to effectively communicate with potential voters — maybe with the help of data append services like Accurate Append — doesn’t automatically translate to transparency and accountability during times of crisis or atrocity. What Lightfoot needs is advisors and staff who can keep her accountable to both macro data on the Chicago electorate and micro situations like "reading the room" on fundamental moral issues like policing. 

Importantly, at the root of this all is not Lori Lightfoot’s own investment in changing how policing is done, or how to help struggling Chicagoans, or anything else. It's about whether her constituents can effectively pressure her to advocate for their interests regardless of her own.