Meet Chicago's New Inspector General
When Deborah Witzburg was growing up outside of Boston, her mother would often read her a book called “Miss Rumphius.”
“It’s about the notion that everyone is responsible for doing something that makes the world more beautiful,” she said. “I’m sort of mortified to have told a reporter the truth of this. It sounds really contrived. But it’s, in fact, true.
“I am the daughter of a physician and a public school teacher. I grew up in a family where the expectation was that you should do something that makes the world better for the people who live in it.”
The title character of Barbara Cooney’s 1982 children’s classic spreads beauty by casting lupine seeds as she walks around her seacoast town.
Witzburg’s civic improvement plan is more sophisticated. Confirmed Wednesday as the City of Chicago Inspector General, she takes over a department that performs fundamental watchdog functions within the government but has been without a full-fledged leader since mid-October, when the term of her predecessor Joseph Ferguson ended amid ongoing conflict with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Lightfoot that month said her pick for a successor would have to grasp “the importance of staying in their lane,” but it wasn’t until the end of March that she nominated Witzburg, the office’s former top deputy for public safety and by most accounts the obvious choice for the job.
Asked if she intends to heed the mayoral mandate, Witzburg, 38, showed the kind of resolve that had alderpersons practically competing to deliver the most fulsome praise as they confirmed her nomination to the four-year term:
“You know, I learned to drive in Massachusetts. And I've always understood lane markers to just be suggestions,” she said, speaking to the Center for Illinois Politics this week. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that OIG occupies every corner of its legal mandate. I did not back down from difficult problems as public safety deputy and I won't do so as inspector general.”
That comment amplified what she said publicly about the importance of the job in mid-April, when she won unanimous endorsement from the council’s Ethics and Government Oversight Committee.
“There are two kinds of costs to corruption. There are the dollar costs, where bad decisions and decisions made for bad reasons cost the city and its residents money, which is therefore not available to be spent on other things,” Witzburg told the committee.
“The kind of larger and darker specter in some ways is the debt of legitimacy. I think the City of Chicago operates at a legitimacy deficit with its residents,” one that costs agencies and officials “the benefit of the doubt in the public view.”
Fundamental to paying down that deficit, she concluded, is “the transparency work of OIG,” the Office of Inspector General.
In the interview, she elaborated: “The challenge and the opportunity of the way OIG is built is that it is both a creature of and necessarily independent from the rest of city government. But where there is light to be shone into dark corners, that light should come from within city government. That is sort of an entitlement of the taxpayers.”
Witzburg comes to the job fully grounded in the department and its duties. After beginning her post-Northwestern Pritzker School of Law career as a Cook County prosecutor, she spent almost six years in the OIG, ending as the deputy inspector general for public safety.
The public safety section was created to push for accountability in the Chicago Police Department in the wake of the 2014 police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Among Witzburg’s achievements was the office’s February, 2021 report sharply critical of the department as it coped with civil unrest in the city in late May and early June of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Her work leading that report was just part of an exemplary record in the office, said Ferguson.
Joe Ferguson and other experts weigh in
“She is immensely qualified for the job in ways that quite literally nobody else could be,” he said.“A skilled lawyer, a skilled administrator, an institutionally knowing player – of both the criminal justice system and governance generally. And she's incredibly hard driving and committed to public service and the mission of the office. So you weren't going to find too many versions of that.”
The department is loaded with mission-focused “Type A personalities,” he said. “You’d better bring it, and she brings it in a way where she leads by example and she leads by principle, as well … She is a fierce intellect. And if you can't keep up with her, be smart enough to just get out of the way and follow in the wake.”
Because her grounding principles were “facts and evidence-based analysis,” Ferguson said, he also observed that she earned “immense regard” within police department and FOP leadership.
Cara Hendrickson credits some of Witzburg’s ability to maintain that regard to her having started as a prosecutor, necessarily working alongside police. “I think that experience has provided her with important insights into the department,” said Hendrickson, the current executive director of Business and Professional People in the Public Interest and previously a public interest division chief in the Illinois Attorney General’s office, where she led the team that litigated and negotiated the consent decree under which the CPD is currently working.
“One thing I appreciate about Deborah's approach to her work is that she is … truly focused on what's going to make our city safer and less focussed on, you know, keeping tallies of people who are on the good list or the naughty list or, you know, some of the personalities that can come to play in an inspector general role,” said Hendrickson, who added she was “pleased” to be part of the selection committee that brought Witzburg to Lightfoot as a finalist for the job.
“In my experience, her ability to be a clear communicator and set those objectives plainly have created respect for her work, even among those who may disagree with a conclusion,” Hendrickson said.
Freya Rigterink, now the COO of The Policing Project at the NYU School of Law, spent three years in the Chicago IG’s office as Witzburg began working there. “She just always stood out as someone who was really dedicated to the work and could really see the big picture and importance of oversight – and also get into details of the individual cases,” Rigterink said.
Going back to law school, Witzburg “felt a sense of responsibility to the community, and she felt a sense of responsibility to the criminal justice system,” said her former Northwestern law professor Ronald J. Allen.
He said he advises his constitutional criminal procedure students that they can “do much more good” for the system as a prosecutor than as a defense attorney. “Prosecutors have enormous discretion, and they can exercise that for good,” he said. “Now I don’t know whether that influenced her or not.”
It certainly sounds as though it did. Witzburg – who lives in Wicker Park with her 5- and 7-year-old daughters and husband who “has an investment fund,” she said – took an undergraduate degree in anthropology at Brown University knowing she was headed to law school.
She started in anthropology “just because it seemed interesting, and I wanted to do something a little bit different,” she said. “I came to think that the study of human behavior was never going to go to waste. And cultural anthropology in particular has served me enormously well … in the context of police oversight and police reform, where we are talking about institutional change and cultural change within a police department.”
She picked NU for law school because she wanted to be in a big city “and I wanted to go somewhere that I thought was serious about public service work,” she said.
Becoming a Cook County assistant state’s attorney after clerking in the office during school, she got to put into practice some of Prof. Allen’s theories about the influence good prosecutors can have. “By the time a criminal case gets to a courtroom, the person in that courtroom best positioned to prevent something bad from happening is the prosecutor holding the case file,” she said. “Judges can find people not guilty. Defense attorneys do really admirable work. But the prosecutor holding the case file is the person who can dismiss a case where something has gone poorly, can make something go away, if that's the right thing.”
Public Safety and Police Reform
It was that work, she said, that also sparked her passion for police reform. “I saw the police at their very best and their very worst,” she said. “I knew police officers next to whom I was proud to stand in the courtroom. I also saw really bad things happen. I saw cases go wrong. I saw people get treated badly. You know, you have the experience exactly once as a prosecutor of having a police officer on the witness stand, asking them a question, and hearing them give you an answer that you know in your bones isn't true. You have that happen exactly once and you never forget what that feels like.”
In 2016 joining the IG’s office as an attorney seemed a natural next step. It was in the immediate aftermath of the release of the video showing Chicago police shooting Laquan McDonald, “and the work of OIG in the police accountability and police oversight universe was really growing,” she said.
She eventually took over the office’s public safety section and then resigned that job in November to avoid any conflict of interest in seeking the top job.
But at public safety, said Witzburg, “I think we made thoughtful, impactful contributions to police reform in Chicago at a moment where that has never been harder or more important. I believe in the good police and I think everybody doing police reform should. Police reform work should be motivated by the view that the problem with policing and with the Chicago Police Department is not that these are good systems with a few bad people in them. They're bad systems with a lot of really good people in them. And I'm proud of the work we did that kind of came from that view.”
The report on the 2020 civil unrest, for instance, “was very much influenced by the perspective that among the many people who were failed by the city's actions, there were frontline members of the police department,” she said.
The Road to Becoming an IG
Without commenting directly on the process that led to her selection, Witzburg did agree with Ferguson – who had announced he would not seek reappointment back in July, to give the city time to have a successor in place when his term ended – that that process itself needs reform. “I don't think that the city or the Office of Inspector General were well served by having this lengthy period of time without a permanent, term-protected person in leadership,” she said.
Police accountability will remain a key function of the office, she said, alongside its government performance audits and misconduct investigations and “really sophisticated data analysis." One hope is to bring those practice areas together and do more interdisciplinary work.
As for how much of a public presence she’ll be, she said, “We’ll see … If I'm doing it right, it will be kind of purposefully and thoughtfully tied to the purpose of the work.”
But leave no doubt as to her excitement in taking the role, she added, in the opportunity to metaphorically spread some flower seeds.
“I am not from Chicago originally, but this is the home I chose. It's the place my children are from,” she said. “I take really seriously the responsibility to leave this place a little better than we found it, to leave it looking a little more than it does like the city its residents deserve. I think this is how I can do that.”
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