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Chicago Mayor Says Police Union Is 'Extraordinarily Reluctant To Embrace Reform'

Demonstrators protest over the death of George Floyd in front of Trump Tower in Chicago on May 30.
Xinhua News Agency
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Demonstrators protest over the death of George Floyd in front of Trump Tower in Chicago on May 30.

With nationwide protests focusing renewed attention and urgency on the issue of police brutality, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago says that police unions continue to be one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

"Unfortunately, in history in our city, and I think the history of other cities, unions are extraordinarily reluctant to embrace reform and that's a current state of affairs here," Lightfoot said in an interview Saturday with NPR's Weekend Edition. "We have had to take them to arbitration to win very modest reforms, and that's a shame of the history of collective bargaining where there hasn't been an emphasis on reform and accountability."

"These contracts," she said, "are a significant problem and challenge in getting the reforms necessary."

Lightfoot rose to political prominence in Chicago by fighting for police reform as a lawyer and head of the Chicago Police Board, a task force on police accountability. Now, one year into her tenure, and with demonstrations over the death of George Floyd gripping the nation, she's being tested on whether she'll be able to enact changes that stymied her predecessors.

Lightfoot has been critical of the police in her time as mayor. This week, she said police violence and brutality "demean the badge" and asked people to report misconduct.

Her comments came amid heightened tensions in Chicago between demonstrators and law enforcement. Last weekend, six people were shot – one fatally — 240 people were arrested and roughly 20 police officers were injured, the Associated Press reported. On Friday, the current Chicago Police Board president, Ghian Foreman, accused officers of hitting him with batons while he was going for a walk near a protest.

In response, Lightfoot enforced a curfew and called for the firing of officers who hid their badge numbers, and for the firing of an officer who gave the middle finger to protesters.

Speaking with NPR, Lightfoot said the issue of police violence went beyond unions. She also pointed to the culture of policing.

"It really comes down to change in the culture," Lightfoot said. "The culture lies in a lot of ways with the supervision. So we've placed a lot of emphasis this week ⁠— 'we' meaning the public and the media ⁠— on the actions of individual officers, but what I want to know is what's happening at the supervision level."

She cited reports about how Derek Chauvin, the officer who has been charged in the murder of George Floyd,was a training officer.

"The supervision is critically important," Lightfoot said. "You have got to think about how you hire, how you train, and how you hold those supervisors accountable, because that's where the culture lies, particularly at the first level of supervision. And we've got a ways to go in Chicago, but I'm committed and determined to make sure that we get it right."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.