This story was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for its newsletters here.
CHICAGO — After facing scrutiny for its secrecy and exclusivity, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Violence Prevention Planning Committee has broadened membership, and, starting with today’s meeting, will no longer operate behind closed doors. The move follows The Trace’s reporting this March on the committee’s lack of transparency.
Agenda and attendance records shared with The Trace show that since then, Lightfoot’s office has expanded the committee from 60 to more than 100 organizations. The expansion includes more community-based and Latino groups. Previously, the committee mostly included representatives from government offices, prominent violence prevention organizations and philanthropic funders. Violence prevention groups that had initially not received an invitation, like Acclivus and Project H.O.O.D., are now listed as members.
“That’s a good thing, [and] should’ve happened from the beginning,” said Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who was disgruntled that community organizations were left off of the original committee. Since the story published in March, he was invited to join the group.
“I’m cautiously optimistic and just hoping that it’s not like a dog-and-pony show to not appear to be nontransparent,” Williams added.
William said he’s not surprised by the invitation, since the committee’s initial makeup and secrecy likely caused tension within gun violence prevention circles.
The change comes as Lightfoot continues to clash with city alderpeople and the news media. Emails released last month following a hack of city communications during a data transfer revealed angry, berating messages the mayor had sent to her staff. The emails also showed that Lightfoot blamed the city’s rising gun violence on judges releasing inmates from jail, despite pushback from her own staff.
Lightfoot created the committee last summer to ensure that the city was on track to meet its violence reduction goals. Her push to expand it and offer more transparency stands in a stark contrast to the administration’s response this spring, when its press team repeatedly doubled down on the committee’s need for privacy.
“These bi-annual meetings remain strictly advisory and due to the important nature of this work, committee members are better able to freely express their ideas, concerns, and inform one another of their ongoing work in this nonpublic setting,” the team said in a statement earlier this year.
Following several high-profile mass shootings across the country, addressing gun violence has taken center stage, from New York to San Jose. Cities are grappling with a sustained surge in shootings that began before the pandemic. Similarly, the Biden administration has made public safety one of its priorities, and contacted Lightfoot following a mass shooting in the city earlier this month.
The Mayor’s Office again declined an on-the-record interview for this story, but agreed to answer questions via email. A Lightfoot spokesperson said that the committee expanded to “allow for a more comprehensive dialogue,” and that the changes took effect several weeks ago. The meeting on June 29 will not be livestreamed, but will be recorded and made public in early July. An agenda shows that the committee will discuss how the city will spend money from the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s pandemic relief package. At least part of those funds will address gun violence. The spokesperson declined to share how much the city has received and how the money will be spent, but said the mayor will make an announcement in “coming weeks.”
The spokesperson said Lightfoot’s office plans to publish a report on the committee’s progress this fall.