Fact-Check: Lightfoot Spreads Rumor That Police Union Told Cops Not to Police

Following a bloody Memorial Day weekend, Chicago’s new mayor shared an unverified rumor that the union representing thousands of rank-and-file officers may have told cops not to perform their sworn duties.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot. (Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times)

Donald Trump created a stir as a presidential candidate in 2016 when he claimed a “top police officer” in Chicago told him the city’s violence problem could be stopped almost cold “in one week.”

Trump put no name or other details to his assertion, part of a repeated riff about how law enforcement in Chicago coddled criminals. Both city and police union leaders said at the time they had no idea what the future president was talking about.

That incident came to mind recently when new Mayor Lori Lightfoot brought up during a cable TV interview another spasm of violence over Memorial Day weekend when 41 people were shot and 7 killed.

In her remarks, Lightfoot sought to draw a connection between the carnage and difficulties she is expected to encounter negotiating a new police contract with the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, which represents thousands of rank and file officers.

“You know, there were rumors floating around about — and I didn’t verify this — but rumors floating around that they were telling their officers, ‘Don’t do anything. Over Memorial Day weekend, don’t intercede,” Lightfoot said on CAN-TV’s “Chicago Newsroom” program. “‘If you see some criminal activity, just lay back, do nothing.’ I hope to God that wasn’t true because, man oh man, if that happened there’s going to be a reckoning.”

Lightfoot made her reputation cracking down on lawless cops, so she and Trump clearly come from very different places when it comes to crime-fighting. Yet the parallel between their inflammatory claims was jarring.

While we are not in the habit of delving into a claim prefaced as rumor, the suggestion from the newly minted mayor that union brass may have told cops not to police cried out for a closer look.

We weren’t alone in being taken aback by Lightfoot’s assertion. Moments after she leveled it, the show’s host, Ken Davis, asked the mayor whether she bought in to the rumor.

“Do you have any reason to believe that that happened?” Davis asked.

Without answering directly, Lightfoot contended past leadership of the police union had previously pushed for something similar.

“Leading into Labor Day in 2016 when we had this catastrophic level of violence, the then-(union) administration — which, there are some carryovers from that — put out a memo telling officers that they should not show up for work, that they shouldn’t do their job, that they shouldn’t be the police,” she said.

That exaggerates the record. According to an August 2016 Chicago Tribune story, the union called for officers not to accept overtime requests during Labor Day weekend — but it said nothing about the officers’ regularly assigned work, as Lightfoot suggested.

What’s more, that example does not back up the claim Lightfoot made about Memorial Day weekend, which she acknowledged was unverified but chose to publicly repeat nonetheless.

Like her predecessor, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot opted to boost patrols in an attempt to stem holiday weekend violence, assigning overtime work to an additional 1,200 cops. Her plan also involved offering free programming activities aimed at youth and partnering with religious leaders to help keep the peace.

It is a lamentable commentary on the chronic state of violence in Chicago that the volume of shootings and deaths over this year’s Memorial Day weekend was little changed from recent years. At the same time, the lack of a surge in mayhem beyond past levels argues against any whispering effort by the FOP to get officers not to do their jobs.

We followed up with Lightfoot’s office to see if the mayor had corroborated what she’d said about Memorial Day weekend since her TV appearance.

“All we can say about this is that the mayor heard it from someone who’s in a position to know and she heard it from a law enforcement source,” spokeswoman Anel Ruiz told us in a phone interview.

We also ran Lightfoot’s claim by Kevin Graham, the union’s leader, who said he had no idea what Lightfoot was talking about.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I am unaware of anyone telling anyone not to do their job.”

And we checked with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who chairs the City Council Committee on Public Safety and served as a Chicago police officer for more than 20 years. He told us he had not heard any rumors, much less verified information, to that effect.

Our ruling

Lightfoot declared in a cable interview that she had heard a rumor about city police union officials “telling their officers, ‘Don’t do anything. Over Memorial Day weekend, don’t intercede. If you see some criminal activity, just lay back, do nothing.’”

Despite acknowledging that the claim she was sharing had not been verified, Lightfoot chose in her capacity as mayor to amplify it anyway.

When we followed up, the mayor’s office would not tell us whom she heard it from beyond saying her source was someone in law enforcement. We also checked with the union’s leader and the Chicago alderman who chairs the city’s public safety committee, both of whom said they had no idea what she was referencing.

Given that neither Lightfoot’s office nor our independent reporting was able to verify the rumor the mayor introduced into public discourse, we rate her claim False.


FALSE — The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Sources

“Donald Trump says a ‘top police officer’ in Chicago said he could stop surging violence in a week,” Washington Post, Aug. 23, 2016

“41 shot, 7 killed in Memorial Day weekend gun violence,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 26, 2019

Video: Lightfoot interview, Chicago Newsroom, May 30, 2019

“Chicago police union calls for officers not to work overtime on Labor Day weekend,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 31, 2016

“New mayor’s strategy for Memorial Day weekend: ‘flooding the zone’ to keep violence in check,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 23, 2019

Phone interview: Anel Ruiz, Lightfoot spokeswoman, June 5, 2019

Phone interview: Kevin Graham, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, June 4, 2019

Phone interview: Ald. Chris Taliaferro, June 4, 2019