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As Cities Across The Country Slash Police Funding, It’s Unlikely To Happen In Chicago With Mayor Not On Board, Aldermen Say

“We keep sending more police to the city’s South and West [sides] and it hasn’t done anything to actually stop the root causes of shootings there every week,” one City Council member said.

Chicago Police officers gear up outside the Chicago Police Academy in the West Loop during a protest demanding that Chicago Public Schools divest from the Chicago Police Department on June 4, 2020. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Some City Council members are advocating for Chicago to join Minneapolis, Minnesota, New York City and Los Angeles to seriously consider shifting funding away from its police department.

At least nine aldermen say they support examining the police budget and reallocating some of that funding into programming like social services, mental health and community interventions that help prevent violence and reduce the need for policing.

The city budgeted nearly $1.8 billion for the Chicago Police Department in 2020, according to Chicago’s budget overview. Chicago’s is the second-largest police department in the U.S. with more than 13,000 officers, according to its most recent annual report.

The city’s 2020 budget also set aside $153 million for legal settlements. In 2018, the city spent approximately $113 million to settle police misconduct cases.

Defunding the police department has been a core demand of community activists for years. The issue has received renewed attention and urgency during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

In response to local unrest, Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised in her State of the City speech that long-delayed reforms to the department would be implemented within 90 days.

But Lightfoot also has resisted demands to strip funding from the police department and cancel its contract with Chicago Public Schools to provide school resource officers.  

“It’s time for this,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th). “The country has been burning. Every major city is looking at this seriously except for Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have a mayor who wants to do that.”

To be clear, the aldermen said “defunding” the police in their view does not mean eliminating the entire department, but shifting some of the massive budget to things that would reduce crime and improve communities. While abolitionists and Black Lives Matter Chicago want to move city funds completely out of the police department and reinvest in community resources, elected officials have been skittish about that, instead focusing on funding reductions.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said she interprets it as “redirecting some of those dollars into solution-based organizations” that provide jobs, social services and healthcare, among other needs.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Chicago Police officers guard Trump Tower in River North on May 30, 2020 as protests in downtown Chicago continued after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

Sadlowski Garza chairs the Progressive Caucus, which meets this week to discuss the issue of defunding the police. Members haven’t formed a collective statement, as they’ve been focusing on cleaning up their neighborhoods following the recent looting.

“I don’t think we can eradicate the police department as a whole,” Sadlowski Garza said. “There are 13,000 men and women wearing blue and white shirts. Not every single one of them is a bad police officer.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said the city needs to go through its budget with a “fine-toothed comb” and stop funding police initiatives that “are not working.” She specifically named detectives and the CAPS program as needing a closer look, citing detectives’ low clearance rates and lack of civilian oversight, alongside CAPS’ lack of youth engagement.

“I use my ward as an example. Attendance at CAPS is very low — and this is pre-coronavirus,” Hairston said. “Most of the people are older; you’re not capturing the young people … maybe there are programs engaging with the youth, but not in a meaningful way.”

Hairston said she also supports removing police officers from schools, something Lightfoot has rejected.

“I’m not understanding what message they are sending to the students by having a policeman there,” she said. “Whatever message it’s supposed to send, it’s failed.”

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd) says the police department’s “overinflated” budget could be better used on programs for unemployment, mental health and conflict intervention. 

“Police have a very hard time preventing a shooting from happening. They show up afterwards,” Rodriguez said. “We keep sending more police to the city’s South and West Side and it hasn’t done anything to actually stop the root causes of shootings there every week.”

The Chicago Department of Public Health established the Office of Violence Prevention in 1994 and it has been underfunded for years, Rodriguez said. 

Lightfoot approved $7.5 million in January to expand the office’s community-based street outreach and trauma-informed victim services in 15 communities at the highest risk of violence. It was a “seven-fold” increase in funding compared to the previous year, according to the mayor’s office. 

That funding is a step in the right direction, Rodriguez said, because unlike police, violence interrupters, street outreach teams and community-based organizations are often much better qualified to prevent violence from happening. 

“What is frustrating is when we ask for more funding for support services and violence prevention programs, we’re told there isn’t enough money for it,” she said. “But the city keeps paying out millions in police misconduct settlements every year.”

Cities like Los Angeles and New York City are acknowledging that public safety systems as they currently exist are not working, Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said. 

Chicago’s police department is larger than the one in Los Angeles but that city has better clearance rate for homicides, he said. And Los Angeles and New York City also spend less annually than Chicago does on police misconduct lawsuits — even though they’re much larger cities.

Martin said this discussion is timely because city officials are currently working on their budget presentations ahead of the City Council’s annual budget hearings a few months from now.

People asking for funding to be moved away from police and towards local support services should be part of the conversation city department leaders are having as they plan out their 2021 budgets, he said.

“Part of the problem is we ask keep asking officers to respond to mental health, wage, education and housing and food instability. Things they aren’t trained for,” Martin said. “As many protesters have said, we have to reimagine what safety looks like and make sure we tackle the root causes of crime from a budget standpoint.”

Vazquez agreed. Crimes of desperation come from not addressing broader societal issues of income inequality, discrimination and housing instability, among other things, he said.

“You can’t police yourself out of these societal problems,” Vasquez said. 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Protesters march on Armitage Avenue during a protest demanding that Chicago Public Schools divest from the Chicago Police Department on June 4, 2020. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Criticism that North Side City Council members — representing affluent areas with lower crime rates — are pushing for police to get less funding oversimplifies the issue, Vasquez said.

For example, housing insecurity has increased substantially due to the coronavirus pandemic and not everyone who applied for assistance was able to get it. 

Being at risk of losing a home is one of the many factors that can contribute to someone being desperate enough to commit a crime and police have no role in helping someone keep their home because they can’t pay rent or a mortgage, he said.

“Addressing housing affordability and stability with funds that would have gone to the police is what I call proactive public safety,” Vasquez said. “And those resources are needed most in the South and West Sides of town because of our city’s historic segregation.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said there are troubling trends with Chicago police and city spending. He criticized Lightfoot’s decision to spend $1.2 million on private security firms to prevent looting this past weekend.

He also pointed to John Catanzara’s election as police union president as a troubling sign of Chicago’s policing culture. Officers’ support for Catanzara — who is currently relieved of police powers and has a history of complaints and suspensions  — makes one “question the kind of practices that are allowed” within CPD, he said.

Sigcho-Lopez said Lightfoot and other aldermen must begin a “long-term plan” for reallocating police funding to other city services, rescinding CPD’s contract with Chicago Public Schools and refusing to sign police contracts that let officers “operate without accountability.”

Alds. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Jeanette Taylor (20th), and Daniel La Spata (1st) have also voiced support for defunding the police in a Sun-Times op-ed.

Chicago’s court-enforced consent decree took effect in 2019. It was developed after the U.S. Department of Justice determined CPD engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional use of force following the killing of Laquan McDonald. 

Despite that reform plan, over 344 complaints have been filed against CPD since May 29 by protesters and journalists. They report being brutalized, beaten with batons and pepper sprayed by officers at protests focused on the murder of George Floyd and police brutality.

Chicago police officers also used batons to strike Ghian Foreman, president of the Chicago Police Board, in the legs five times during a protest in Hyde Park. Foreman is Black, and leads the independent body comprising civilians that decides discipline in cases involving officers.

“I am sure there are going to be even more lawsuits being filed over police misconduct by people who police hurt during these protests,” Rodriguez said. “We continue to say police need better training. But police are now getting trained by incredible social workers and it seems like we still can’t reduce this city’s police brutality.” 

During a Monday call with reporters, Lightfoot again did not discuss taking away funds from the police to expand resources to South and West Side communities. She said her priorities in police reform involve additional training in “respectful, constitutional engagement,” better supervision of officers and making sure the police union contracts can’t be used as a roadblock.

Lightfoot also said she is dedicated to restructuring the police department beyond what the current consent decree requires.

“We’re working to make sure that we educate the public about the things that have been happening in Chicago really over the course of the last four years,” she said.

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