CHICAGO — Following a summer of protests against police brutality and waves of looting that rocked the city, Chicago aldermen offered up contrasting visions for the future role of the Chicago Police during a marathon budget hearing Thursday.
Proclaiming “police officers are not our enemies,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected calls to “defund the police” in her $12.8 billion pandemic budget, but it does eliminate 614 vacancies from the department, angering aldermen who want more police officers in districts serving their wards.
Her decision goes against the wishes of more than 85 percent of respondents to a citywide survey of 37,000 residents that called for money to be reallocated from the department to fund public health, infrastructure and other social services. Progressive aldermen cited that figure when pressing Police Supt. David Brown to help them reimagine the role of the police department Thursday.
The differing opinions on police are evident in Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s 20th Ward, she said.
“I have a ward that’s split, half of my ward hates you, and the other part loves you, so I’m somewhere in the middle,” she told Brown. “It seems like every major city around the country is doing something different than just investing in police, and we’re not.”
While the department’s $1.7 billion 2021 budget is a 3.3 percent reduction from 2020, the $58.9 million cut stems from eliminating 614 vacancies and shifting administrative costs to the Public Safety Administration, created to streamline administrative functions across the city’s public safety departments.
Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) said that would leave the city with a “blind spot” as districts across the city starved for officers, a complaint shared by many aldermen who asked for more resources for the individual districts that serve their wards.
But Brown conceded the department would struggle to fill the vacancies with a dearth of applicants and coronavirus restrictions limiting the number of recruits who can pass through the academy.
Progressive aldermen pressed Brown to commit resources to a co-responder program that would see mental health professionals respond to 911 calls for health emergencies rather than police officers.
Brown backed a pilot program backed by Lightfoot that would be planned and implemented in select police districts in 2021, but few details were shared.
“Officers are being asked to do things we were never meant to be doing,” he said.
But Brown suggested officers should respond in coordination with medical professionals to “make sure everyone’s safe, including the mental health professional, the family, and the person experiencing that episode.”
Many aldermen critiqued the department for shifting officers downtown, away from the districts that serve their ward, a common complaint throughout the year that Lightfoot and Brown have argued isn’t accurate.
Chicago Police Chief of Operations Brian McDermott said the “vast majority” of officers remain outside of downtown, but four to six officers from each district have been transferred downtown to deter mass looting.
With almost 70 percent of the city’s revenue generated downtown, “we can’t just sit back and wait for another looting incident to occur,” McDermott.
Ald. Sophia King (4th), who chairs the Progressive Reform Caucus, said that decision leaves neighborhoods outside of downtown vulnerable and questioned why officers are “waiting” for something bad to happen downtown while people are being killed in other communities.
Brown blamed the looting and ongoing protests for causing the department to blow through overtime in 2020, with the department having spent $125 million thus far, a number that could balloon further if the city sees unrest following the election, Brown said.
Aldermen also zeroed in on what Brown is doing to meet the requirements of the court imposed consent decree that mandates reforms of the department.
The department has failed to meet 70 percent of the deadlines for reform in the first and second reporting periods for the decree, and the department is tracking over 800 items of reforms for a third reporting period that comes due before the end of the year.
The 2021 police budget allocates $7.7 million towards meeting the requirements, and Brown told aldermen his department is making progress, but he also suggested the “spirit” of change within the department is just as important as meeting the legal requirements.
“I think we’re not going to get to a safe place, a safe community until we have that trust and until we implement those elements of the consent decree,” Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) told Brown.
Supt. Brown said more than 1,000 officers have tested positive for coronavirus and three have died. Police officers have been seen throughout the summer not wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus. Brown said the department “recently” put out an order that includes progressive discipline for those caught not wearing a mask.
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