Tangling with city officials over police transparency may not have been on Lauren Cole’s bingo card when she arrived at the University of Chicago in 2018. 

That was before her public policy research internship with the Chicago Justice Project. And before Cole, MPP Class of 2023, uncovered a previously unpublicized suspension in Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown’s past.

“Who Knew about the David Brown Suspension?” the Chicago Justice Project asked in an August 2021 headline on its website. Cole found that city leaders were in no hurry to answer. 

Lauren Cole, MPP Class of 2023

She said some aldermen on the Public Safety Committee yelled at her when she called to find out if they were told about Brown’s 15-day suspension from the Dallas Police Department before their 2020 vote on his confirmation. (The late 1980s suspension stemmed from a police chase into oncoming traffic and the subsequent submission of “multiple reports containing false information,” Cole wrote.) Other city officials declined to comment about Cole’s discovery, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

The experience – coming as Cole had just earned her UChicago political science (with a focus on human rights) degree and just ahead of her first year as a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy – was equal parts thrilling and frightening, she said.

“It was exciting to have that reach and terrifying for my work to be out in the world and getting responses from people in power,” said Cole. “I didn't think that something like that would happen.”

Describing itself as empowering “communities to challenge justice system policies and practices with evidence-based analysis,” the Chicago Justice Project unleashed Cole on a range of public safety topics. Before her work wrapped up in June, she had analyzed and written about the 50 misconduct complaints against Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara plus pored over his social media accounts to note what she described as “offensive” and “disrespectful” posts. That research was featured in a late 2021 segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

She also completed an analysis of 489 agenda items from 20 years of Chicago City Council Committee on Public Safety meetings, concluding that the evidence “reveals a lack of oversight of policing structures.”

When it comes to the state and local policy issues Cole is passionate about, “Chicago doesn't get boring. I'll tell you that,” she said.

Cole now is digging in on policies in areas ranging from transportation to broadband access as the AARP’s livable communities advocacy Intern, yet another opportunity to put her Harris classroom tools into real-world practice. 

Her studies at Harris, she said, “have reaffirmed the advocacy and career goals that I had, which is really nice and comforting as a 22-year-old to have a clear direction of what you'd like to do with your life.”

Those studies include The Core, Harris rigorous first-year curriculum, of course. But Cole added that one of her most impactful classes was Writing for Public Policy Professionals with David Chrisinger, who leads the Harris Writing Program. “It was amazing,” she said.

“Harris focuses a lot on being able to process data, but as policy professionals we also need to be able to communicate what the data tells us,” she said. “Much of the work I've done is explaining policy.”

“Being able to sift through bureaucracy, gather and condense information, and then knowing how to disseminate it to a wider audience is something that I've cultivated at Harris,” Cole added. “And I’ve discovered it’s a critical skill generally for going into the field of public policy.”

Going into that field has always been on Cole’s radar.

“If you look at my kindergarten yearbook, it says that I'm going to be the first woman president,” Cole said. “My goals have gotten more realistic and less stressful since then, but I always knew I wanted to go into policy and politics.”

To that end Cole, “was an immediate member of the University of Chicago Democrats” upon arriving on campus, eventually serving as the group’s executive director.

She also frequently volunteers in policy spheres including health and education, efforts that won her a 2022 University Community Service Center Perry Herst Prize.

As she begins her second year at Harris, she’ll be on the board and planning events for OUTPolitik, Harris's student organization for LGBTQ-identified students. When Cole finally packs up and leaves Chicago, she “would like to do something advocacy based at least for the next five to 10 years,” she said.

“And at some point, I would like to run for local office, probably in the New York State Assembly. The New York City suburbs are where I’m from and I would feel weird about making legislation for a community that I'm not a member of.”

For now, school, work, and extracurriculars form a perfect circle. 

“My education allows me to have the career I want to have and helps me develop the skills to succeed with my internships and advocacy work,” Cole said. The extracurriculars like the OUTPolitik events she helps plan are, she said, a “fun way to relax at the end of the day.”

“I couldn’t be doing all of these things if I wasn't excited about them and didn't believe I was making a difference or working toward something,” she said. “It’s mission driven.”