DOWNTOWN — Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s win could usher in a new era for how Chicago approaches public safety.
Polls showed public safety was a top priority for voters in last week’s election — and Johnson and his challenger, former schools CEO Paul Vallas, staked out drastically different strategies for tackling it as they battled for City Hall’s top job.
Johnson said he would address the root causes of crime by investing in a youth summer employment plan and mental health, promoting 200 detectives to solve crimes and more. Vallas said Chicago was suffering from an “utter breakdown of law and order” and vowed to bring back retired officers and hire more to work in the neighborhoods and on the CTA.
Johnson won. And his message on crime might have resonated more with potential voters, according to new research.
A recent survey of nearly 800 Chicagoans likely to vote in the April 4 runoff showed a slim majority favored Johnson’s crime prevention model over the “tough-on-crime” approach backed by Vallas.
The survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, an opinion research and strategic consulting firm for progressive candidates, and VeraAction, a safety and justice opinion research organization.
About 95 percent of participants said crime in Chicago was a “serious problem citywide,” with most respondents concerned about gun violence, car theft and violent crime.
When asked if they favored a “crime prevention” or “tough-on-crime” approach, 55 percent of respondents said they preferred a “crime prevention” approach.
Thirty percent of respondents indicated they think more “mental health services and drug addiction programs” would be most effective in reducing crime, while 24 percent indicated “stricter penalties and longer sentences” would be most effective, and 23 percent chose “more jobs and small businesses in neighborhoods.”
Participants were less likely to choose “hiring more police” as a crime-fighting strategy — 18 percent of those surveyed selected that option.
Forty-five percent of the survey’s respondents were white, 33 percent Black, 16 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 2 percent other, said Anna Greenberg, a senior parter at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
Johnson ended up seeing support around Chicago, with broad stretches of the South Side and West Side supporting him, as well as pockets of the Northwest and North sides.
A map from the Tribune’s Jake Sheridan showed the communities hit hardest by crime were among those that went for Johnson.
“That suggests that the people who are most directly impacted by it want to see a broader range of approaches,” said Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures.
Arnold Ventures is a Houston-based LLC that does philanthropic giving in criminal justice, education, health care and finance. Katz also served as deputy chief of staff for public safety under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Support for these “range of approaches” does not mean people eschewed policing, Katz said. In fact, survey results indicated 60 percent of participants had a favorable view of police.
“It seems again that a combination of … community violence intervention and other approaches to address the root causes — good jobs, good housing and good schools — is of interest to the people,” Katz said.
Even as a slim majority of survey respondents said Johnson’s overall philosophies on crime more closely matched their own, 55 percent of participants indicated they trusted Vallas to reduce crime, while about 51 percent of respondents indicated the same for Johnson.
Although the difference between the two falls within the margin of error, it can indicate other priorities for voters were a deciding factor in picking a candidate at the polls, Greenberg said.
“Crime is the No. 1 and top priority for people in the city; it’s not the only thing people vote on. And so there are some people who maybe thought Vallas was better but didn’t vote for him for any number of reasons,” Greenberg said.
It could also show that it was wrong to assume voters worried about crime would vote for Vallas, Greenberg said.
“That kind of assumption on the front end that Vallas would win because he was ‘tough on crime’ and everybody’s worried about crime was a sort of a very simplistic assumption,” Greenberg said.
Crime has taken center stage in other recent mayoral elections, such as New York City and Los Angeles. The “tough-on-crime” approach was successful for New York City Mayor Eric Adams, but it failed in Los Angeles, where Mayor Karen Bass held off a more conservative challenger.
The survey results show public safety is ultimately a local issue, and platforms based on police and crime can vary in its success, Katz said.
Part of Johnson’s plan is to redirect $150 million within the Police Department’s budget, with $50 million to fund reform and adhere to the city’s consent decree.
Johnson has also expressed support for the passage of the Treatment Not Trauma ordinance, which would dispatch medical and mental health professionals to respond to mental-health crises-related calls instead of police.
Johnson has also said he will double the summer youth jobs program to include more than 60,000 youth in the most at-risk neighborhoods.
The University Chicago Crime Lab is looking forward to that, along with the continuation of other youth programs, like Back to Our Future, its leaders said.
Back to Our Future is a pilot program at Chicago Public Schools that focuses on engaging students who have left school and bringing them back for “education completion opportunities.”
“I hope that the new administration will continue with [it]. I just think it’s got tremendous promise. … It’s an important population that frankly has been overlooked for far too long,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director for the crime lab.
A city that could be a blueprint for Chicago is Newark, New Jersey. The city has had success with crime prevention and community based-policies in recent years, Katz said.
In 2020, Newark redirected $11 million from the police budget to fund violence prevention. It has also implemented programs to address community trauma. Newark’s officers didn’t fire a single gunshot in 2020 amid the reforms.
Katz hopes to see Johnson bring multiple stakeholders together at “one table” to address public safety needs of the city, something Johnson has already promised.
“To the Chicagoans who did not vote for me: I want you to know, here’s what I want you to know — that I care about you,” Johnson said during his victory speech last week. “I want to work with you. And I’ll be the mayor for you, too. Because this campaign has always been about building a better, stronger, safer Chicago for all the people of Chicago.”