This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.
CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot has entrusted much of the city’s $400 million violence-reduction strategy to a new city office created to coordinate a holistic approach to attacking “decades of disinvestment and systemic racism at the root of the problem.”
But a Better Government Association investigation reveals the optimistic rhetoric behind Lightfoot’s new Community Safety Coordination Center often outweighs the substance.
The BGA reviewed hundreds of pages of records from document requests and court cases, internal emails and financial records, and conducted dozens of interviews to profile an initiative based heavily on marketing and communications, whose leader — who has a history of hyperbole about her own accomplishments — is focused largely on public perception.
The center is promoting walking trails, supporting block club events and pressing other city agencies to fulfill their responsibilities to plant trees, clean up vacant lots and be more responsive to complaints piling up in the 311 call center.
Critics say all these are noble goals, but do little to address the underlying conditions contributing to bloodshed in the same neighborhoods year after year.
“Given the scale of the challenge in a city like Chicago, given the scale of segregation by income and race, given the degree of inequality across the metro area, there’s just no reason to think that an intervention at that scale is even appropriate for the problem of violence,” said Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton University sociology professor.
City officials say the center is working. They credit it for a recent reduction in violence in 15 communities, another questionable claim, according to experts and a BGA analysis of data provided by the city to support it.
Lightfoot created the center 12 months ago — to fanfare and amid national headlines about out-of-control shootings — describing it as the linchpin of her citywide fight against violence.
“We are one of the few cities, and I would say the only one, that is doing it at this scale,” Lightfoot said at one of the many public events promoting the new center. “It’s really building the muscle memory for us to adequately respond to violence and trauma that plagues our communities.”
At the helm of the new bureaucracy is Tamara Mahal. In the past five years, she rose from an airport emergency manager to become the public face of Lightfoot’s effort to address one of Chicago’s largest threats — to safety, to the city’s reputation as a tourist mecca and to the mayor’s political future. At each step along the way, Mahal has overstated her accomplishments, raising questions about Lightfoot’s reliance on her in such a key role.
Mahal, 37, confidently puts a positive spin on the work of the center while often glossing over the specifics of what it is doing to end the killings. Among the largest items in the center’s three-year budget is $8 million for marketing and communications, records show.
In late 2020, Lightfoot promoted Mahal from the airport to coordinate distribution of the city’s COVID-19 vaccines — an effort touched by scandal and accusations of unfairness. Then last year, Lightfoot put Mahal in charge of the “nerve center” of her “comprehensive plan” to make Chicago the safest big city in the country.
Mahal, at one of many appearances, told a town hall in March on the South Side her two high-priority assignments called for a similar approach.
“Last summer, the mayor said we need to take what ultimately led to a successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the most equitable vaccine distribution in the United States, and we need to apply that to what is ultimately the city’s largest epidemic — gun violence,” she said.
Mahal said at a town hall this spring, “We really believe that we not only will work to reduce violence this summer, but, for the first time maybe in Chicago’s history, we will reasonably reduce violence in the long term.”
Danielle Mayfield, a Near West Side resident, came to one of Mahal’s block club events hoping for answers and left frustrated with no idea of how the city plans to tackle gun violence.
“I didn’t hear a plan,” she said.
In touting Mahal’s qualifications to lead the center, Lightfoot cited her accomplishments handling the vaccine response. But Mahal and Lightfoot have given overstated and sometimes false accounts of the effort.
One example is their claim the COVID-19 vaccine program was “the most equitable vaccine distribution” in the country. Not true, the BGA investigation found. So ingrained is this false claim in City Hall’s public relations playbook that Lightfoot has repeated it.
Lightfoot declined to be interviewed, but a spokesman issued a statement saying the mayor has “full confidence” in Mahal.
“Tamara is an exemplary public servant who has demonstrated her leadership and experience during unprecedented circumstances,” the spokesman wrote.
Lightfoot was even more effusive at a March press conference.
“I just heard from someone this morning, so I’m gonna embarrass her a little bit, what a joy it is to work with her,” the mayor said of Mahal. “She’s determined, she is focused and she is getting the work done, which is not easy. As someone said to me, doing the people’s work is not easy, and Tamara, every single day, is doing the people’s work.”
Confronted with the BGA’s findings in a recent interview, Mahal was more muted than she’s been while giving speeches with motivational zeal across Chicago. She said the anti-violence center is using short-term programs to build trust and lay groundwork for bigger change.
She also conceded she might have made inaccurate statements about the vaccine push but said she was repeating what colleagues told her.
“I’m always happy to be educated if something I’m saying is wrong. I think what you’re seeing there is a great deal of pride in what we were able to accomplish,” she said during one of her interviews with the BGA. “It is fair for you to bring it up if it’s wrong.”
Mahal’s Fast Rise
Mahal often cites her early-career disaster work as a reason she is qualified to take on vaccines and violence. She once told the Chicago Tribune people who work in disaster response are “born with a certain calmness and a certain ability to handle rough situations.”
On a city livestream, she said she responded to “everything from hurricanes and tornadoes to ice storms and some man-made hazards, as well.” She told the BGA she would “drop into disasters and coordinate complex operations.”
In response to BGA questions, Mahal cited nine disasters into which she deployed. Pressed for details, she acknowledged those missions tended to involve paperwork helping victims and contractors get resources.
One past role was director of emergency management at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where she “led a response to a two-month water-shortage crisis” in 2016, according to her job applications at City Hall.
Guilford Mooring, public works superintendent for the town of Amherst, said Mahal was an articulate presence at meetings — but the town’s advice to the college was to water its lawns less.
“Yes, there was a drought in the town of Amherst in 2016. Yes, she was the person at Amherst College who was handling their response to it. Yes, they considered it far worse than the rest of us considered it,” Mooring said.
Mahal’s Chicago career started in 2017, around the time former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official Andrew Velasquez took over safety and security at the airports at a time of leadership churn, scandals and federal job–discrimination lawsuits. Velasquez was a lecturer at the University of Chicago, where Mahal got a master’s degree in threat and response management.
She won promotions quickly, but not without controversy, according to BGA interviews with five current or former aviation department employees and emails provided through Freedom of Information Act requests.
A veteran safety director whom Mahal supervised, L. Byron Patton III, has a pending lawsuit alleging the city fired him in retaliation after he complained of “harassment” from Mahal. Patton alleges the problems escalated after he reported her “time and attendance violations.”
Airport security personnel are required to use their city-issued identification badges to swipe in and out of secure areas. Patton found Mahal routinely submitted “swipe edit forms” — a written correction stating she had been in the airport but often gained access without swiping in.
Between August 2017 and November 2018, records show, Mahal submitted more than two dozen of the forms, typically checking a box saying she forgot to swipe in or out.
Lightfoot took office vowing to crack down on time card abusers across all city agencies.
In his lawsuit, Patton alleges he reported her alleged infractions to managers, and Mahal retaliated by excluding him from meetings and falsely accusing him of threatening her. The city has denied wrongdoing and asserted it had valid reasons to fire Patton in 2019.
Mahal declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
False Claims About Life-and-Death Program
In speeches and interviews, Mahal cites her role coordinating Lightfoot’s vaccine program as a critical experience in her leadership of the center. But her repeated claims about how Chicago bested all big U.S. cities in vaccine equity — including on her LinkedIn page — are not true, the BGA found.
Her rhetoric echoes that of her boss. Lightfoot’s promotional booklet about the first half of her term made the same claim, and the mayor said at a congressional hearing the city has a “reputation as having the most equitable vaccine distribution strategy in the country.”
A recent study from Drexel University researchers in the American Journal of Epidemiology compared neighborhoods in big cities ranked by a “Social Vulnerability Index” — a score considering factors such as income, race and transportation in assessing vulnerability to disease.
The study found that as of September 2021 — just two months after Mahal left the vaccine effort — Chicagoans in the most vulnerable neighborhoods were 27% less likely to be fully vaccinated than those in the most advantaged areas, a wider gap than 10 of the 16 big cities examined, including New York and Los Angeles.
In initially defending Mahal’s claim after the BGA raised questions, the city provided a statement and spreadsheet purporting to show Chicago led the other nine biggest U.S. cities — or counties that gave their vaccines — in a specific measure: the percentage of Black or Latino people with at least one dose in April 2021.
But the statistics the city sent don’t match official data from other places — or Chicago, for that matter. For example, in April 2021, Santa Clara County, California – which covers San Jose, the 10th-biggest U.S. city — had given at least one dose to 31% of its Black and Latino population, to Chicago’s 27.7%, according to data from both places. The county remains well ahead of Chicago by that standard.
In May 2021 on a livestream with Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, Mahal said Chicago was “one of the only major cities that’s actually undertaken the effort” to give vaccines to the homebound.
Again, not true. In fact, at least six other cities or counties in the top 10 biggest performed in-home vaccines at the time, officials in those places said.
Mahal also was mistaken when she told the BGA the United Center was “hands-down the most equitable mass distribution” site in the country.
The city declined to provide evidence. In fact, San Antonio officials reported 57.2% of those vaccinated at the Alamodome were Latino or Black, compared to the United Center’s 43.4%. When you factor in the number of doses administered in both places and their overall populations, “one of them isn’t clearly doing better than the other,” said Gregory Matthews, director of data science at Loyola University Chicago.
A recent study by University of Chicago researchers compared the least vaccinated quarter of Chicago’s ZIP codes, which were mostly Black, to the most vaccinated, which were mostly white, and estimated 255 lives could have been saved if better vaccination coverage had driven down death rates in less vaccinated areas.
“Ideally, more vaccines would have gone to these most vulnerable areas than these most advantaged areas of the city,” said Dr. William Parker, one of the study’s authors.
Media reports from the time showed Chicago’s vaccine rollout first sent shots disproportionately to whiter, wealthier areas. Starting in early 2021, the program “Protect Chicago Plus” narrowed the racial gap before the city ended it after three months.
One specific failure undercuts City’s Hall’s promotional accounts of an equitable distribution: the Loretto Hospital scandal.
Officials at the hospital — a vaccination hub in a poor, largely Black neighborhood — diverted then-scarce doses to ineligible people at Trump Tower downtown and the CEO’s suburban church. Block Club Chicago and the BGA revealed mismanagement and insider contracts, and the FBI is investigating the vaccination program. In May, reporters dug out an internal Loretto audit showing more than half of the hospital’s on-site coronavirus vaccine doses went to white and Asian people, while the neighborhood Loretto serves is 79% Black.
As the Loretto scandal unfolded, Mahal was involved in the city response, City Hall emails show. But her precise role remains hidden because the city largely redacted Mahal’s messages provided to the BGA under FOIA. For example, a March 2021 email she sent, entitled “RE: Trump Tower follow-up,” was fully redacted. The city also blacked out a comment Mahal made the next month as city officials were coordinating with Loretto on a statement related to the scandal.
When BGA reporters first asked Mahal about Loretto, she responded, “I’m gonna have to say: Can we get back to violence and community safety?”
In a subsequent BGA interview, Mahal blamed the hospital for the diversion of the vaccines.
“Emphatically, no, I do not believe my role or the role of the city of Chicago contributed,” she said.
Mahal said her contentions about vaccine equity and the United Center were rooted in what she heard from other officials. She couldn’t recall why she thought Chicago was nearly alone in vaccinating people in their homes.
Grand Talk, Modest Accomplishments
As with the vaccine program, much of Mahal’s work as head of Lightfoot’s new Community Safety Coordination Center — known as the CSCC — is more modest than the city’s transformational talk suggests, the BGA found.
A prominent focus of the center is pressing the city to do its job on basic government tasks, as when her staff pushes departments to address 311 complaints about vacant lots or missing lighting.
In June, Mahal went on TV to tout walking trails featuring recordings of people discussing the ways gunfire has devastated their lives. Questioned by the news anchor — “How does a walking trail with audio about violence in Chicago help things?” — she said: “It is more than an audio trail. It’ll be a monthlong marketing campaign.”
She wore a red T-shirt reading, “We can end gun violence.”
Days later, in a sound bite that could have come from a Lightfoot campaign event, Mahal framed a tree-planting program as a solution to shootings.
“The communities with the least trees have the highest rates of violence,” she told a gathering of block club members.
In a statement to the BGA, Lightfoot’s press secretary said the center’s “strategies are bearing fruit.” Since the center was created a year ago, “homicides, shootings and violent crime are materially down” in the 15 neighborhoods where the initiative is primarily focused, wrote press secretary Cesar Rodriguez in an emailed response from the mayor’s office.
Lightfoot made the same point to a BGA reporter in June during a brief encounter after a block club meeting.
“I think it’s definitely working, and obviously it’s a start up,” Lightfoot said. “I think the proof is in the pudding. We’ve seen remarkable reductions in violence in those 15 communities.”
Two Chicago-based criminologists interviewed by the BGA were skeptical of Lightfoot’s claim the center is behind a recent decrease in shootings — a trend with a complex set of causes. They also cautioned against reading much into a short-term decrease from the record-setting year of 2021. During the first half of 2022, those 15 neighborhoods suffered more shootings than in the comparable periods in six of the 10 prior years.
“I think I would be leery of any one solution claiming that they are the causal factor in reducing crime,” said Xavier Perez, a criminologist at DePaul University. “One year only tells you just a snapshot of that year. It doesn’t really tell you much more than that.”
Lightfoot and the police superintendent cite the city’s Violence Reduction Dashboard, which shows homicides citywide down 15% and shootings down 20%, compared to the previous year as of mid-July.
But the dashboard — promoted on the center’s website — has not always been accurate.
After the BGA recently flagged a glitch that caused the dashboard to leave out scores of 2022 crimes, the city added 13 more murders for 2022, along with other violent offenses. The glitch has now been corrected, records show.
Standard Chicago police statistics, which count incidents rather than individual people harmed, provide a grimmer picture than Lightfoot’s dashboard. For example, the dashboard shows carjacking victimizations increased by 7% from January through mid-July, compared to last year, while police statistics show the increase was 13.6% — nearly two times more.
While heavily promoting Mahal’s anti-violence center, the city’s press releases often fail to explain in concrete terms what the CSCC does.
The specific projects listed on the center’s website include helping residents get rebates for security cameras, giving information and resources to block clubs, offering training sessions on healing trauma, and holding “Low-Key Kickbacks” for youths on Saturday evenings.
The BGA examined more than 100 pages of the center’s weekly situation reports, which show slow progress on initiatives including “cutting the tall trees down,” potentially designing new signs for block clubs, and making condolence calls to people who’ve lost children to violence. The reports often don’t make clear which of their efforts materialize.
At a June meeting for block club members, the center’s staff members said they could hasten work requested through the 311 hotline, which is known for long wait times and unfulfilled requests. Mahal told attendees if they were frustrated by not getting services, they should talk to Rona Mobley-Wells, a streets and sanitation official assigned to the center.
Mobley-Wells then told the crowd whose job it is to get the city to fix potholes and clean vacant lots: residents.
“You may be on hold for a while, but it’s according to your concern. If you want it done, you will be persistent,” Mobley-Wells said. “You’re going to call again and again and again, and persistence will pay off.”
Some research supports cleaning vacant lots and adding greenery as ways to reduce violence. But local advocates questioned why the city tasked a new office with coordinating services from other departments — rather than simply fixing those systems.
Kofi Ademola, an adviser to the nonprofit group GoodKids MadCity, described the city’s message as, “We just need to train you how to interface better with this f- – -ed up system versus … making the system more accessible to actually, you know, be useful and humane.”
Violence flourishes in places where segregation, poverty and disinvestment have concentrated, said Robert Sampson, a Harvard University social sciences professor.
Services such as those the center provides “aren’t really addressing the long-term causes of community violence and community decline. Those factors have been erected over decades,” Sampson said.
Mahal told the BGA she’s promoting projects “people can really feel and see” while helping Lightfoot behind the scenes to “coordinate the extremely large monster that can be city government to make the biggest impact in those communities.”
A key to Mahal’s rise to prominence is her focus on public perception, spelled out on a handwritten poster on the wall at the center saying, “Remember Tamara’s 5 P’s!”
Next to “perception” was written, “How many ways might this be perceived? How do you communicate around perception?”
Mahal told the BGA perception is the key to the success of her program.
“I gotta be honest,” she told BGA reporters, “That would be my No. 1 most important factor.”