CHICAGO – Allies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed back a City Council vote on her controversial plan to sue gang leaders and try to seize their assets, fearing opponents of the measure had enough votes to strike it down.
Lightfoot floated the ordinance in September 2021, saying it was a necessary “tool” to dismantle “gangs that are wreaking havoc, and in particular, take away the profit motive from them by seizing assets that they have been able to purchase because of their violent activity in our neighborhoods.”
But the proposal faced immediate criticism from progressive alderpeople, Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. and civil rights attorneys who said it would not be an effective tool to combat violence and would expose the city could face legal liability if the ordinance were adopted.
Gangs are also not responsible for the majority of homicides in Chicago, according to the Chicago Police Department’s own data. The Trace analyzed 34,000 shootings in the past decade and found less than three in 10 were considered gang-related.
With a vote on the measure hanging in the balance Wednesday, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), who favored the ordinance during committee hearings, used a parliamentary maneuver to block an up or down vote until the next City Council meeting in March.
The move is a sign Lightfoot feared the City Council would kill the ordinance, which was opposed by at least five of her handpicked committee chairs and more progressive members of the body.
Lightfoot defended the proposal at an unrelated press conference Tuesday, saying it will take away the “profit motive” of gang leaders and that she’ll leave it up to a judge to decide if the city brings forth a compelling case against defendants.
“What I’d like the critics to answer is to answer the call, and the cry, and the plea of people in neighborhoods that are under siege by gang violence. Tell them why we should not take away the profit motive of gangs who are killing our children,” Lightfoot said.
Taliaferro said he delayed the vote because “I’m personally still considering it” after hearing from his constituents who “raised some very, very good points.”
But Taliaferro chalked up their concerns to a misunderstanding of what it allows, rather than the merits of the proposal.
“I think it’s a perfect opportunity for my constituents to get a better understanding of exactly what the ordinance is proposing,” he said, citing “misinformation” of whether the measure would hurt the families of alleged gang members and targets low-level gang members rather than organized crime.
Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th), the former chair of the Black Caucus who led the opposition to the ordinance, said “it looks like we might have had the votes to defeat it.”
“The big talk about it is it’s just another tool in the toolbox. …but what if the tool is a spoon? I might be able to use it once or twice, and even then it’s going to be of minimal value, so do I really need it?” he said.
There are no changes that can be made to gain his support, Sawyer said, arguing it would “maybe get a couple of people, a couple of dollars,” but wasn’t worth the expense to fight in court or possibly open the city up to civil rights litigation.
“We’ve done this before, we’ve been through this rodeo,” he said of asset forfeiture laws. “It was not used for its intended purpose.”
Failing to build support for the ordinance resulted in a rare legislative rebuke for the mayor. The council’s public safety committee approved the ordinance last week but faced a tougher task clearing the City Council.
City officials have argued the ordinance would create a crime deterrent for gang leaders by attacking their “profit motive.”. But when pressed by alderpeople at a committee hearing last week, they admitted they did not have evidence to back up the claim.
John O’Malley, deputy mayor for public safety, said, “if it were not a deterrent, I don’t think asset forfeiture would exist.”
“One of their biggest fears is us coming after their money,” said Daniel O’Shea, deputy chief in the Chicago Police Department. “They don’t really fear the criminal justice system, they’re not really seeing the penalties of the old days where they’re seeing the heavy penitentiary time, but they do fear us taking their cars, their property, their businesses that they’re laundering money through.”
Data provided by city and police officials have shown the cost to litigate these cases could outpace the financial assets the city could recoup. Half of the profit the city receives from the cases would be returned to the community, Lightfoot has said.
Were the proposed ordinance in place, the city could have tried 258 cases in 2020 and 220 in 2021, according to the police department, representing $571,390 and $539,316 in potential financial assets to be turned over to the city.
City attorneys estimated it could cost $7,000 for its attorneys to bring a case against a sole defendant, and up to $1 million and 1,500 hours or more in attorney time to litigate a case with multiple defendants through trial, according to city data shared by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who opposes the ordinance.
Steve Kane of the city’s Law Department said no additional attorneys would be hired to pursue the cases, but that the department wouldn’t pursue more “more than a few cases, certainly in the first year,” before they learned more about how to effectively utilize the ordinance.
The ordinance mirrors a state law that allows municipalities to sue gangs and gang members in civil court. It would allow the city’s corporation counsel to bypass state and federal prosecutors to pursue the cases.
“This provides a tool to pursue assets … without waiting for a response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Cook County State’s Attorney Office,” O’Malley said.
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