As another violent summer ends in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot vows to fight crime. But critics say the city is in crisis.
CHICAGO — After an especially violent 2020 when nearly 800 people were killed, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot started the new year with an email expressing support for police leadership and a pledge to reduce crime.
“I think we all know that we must do exponentially better in this new year, and I am confident we will. My confidence is grounded in many things, but fundamentally it is grounded in my confidence in all of you,” Lightfoot wrote in the Jan. 1 email to Superintendent David Brown and other police officials.
“You now have many months under your belt as a senior leadership team at CPD. And your bond will only grow,” Lightfoot wrote. “You will chart the course not just for CPD, but you will be in the vanguard for our city — our hopes and aspirations for living a safe and peaceful life must be part of your daily prayers and missions because all eyes look to you.”
As another violent summer in Chicago comes to a close, however, the city has not done “exponentially better” on crime. In many ways, Chicago’s chronic problem with street violence has worsened. City statistics show the number of shooting victims is up year-to-date through Sept. 6, from 2,781 in 2020 to 3,043 in 2021. Homicides are up, from 526 in 2020 to 540.
Expressway shootings have also spiked. In the first eight months of 2021, shootings on Chicago-area expressways outpaced those in all of 2020, with 159 gun attacks, as the Chicago Tribune previously reported. Last year, the area saw 128 such shootings, more than double the total for 2019. Chicago police statistics don’t reflect those incidents because expressways are under the state’s jurisdiction, but it’s a stark example of rampant city violence.
Concern over high crime recently led Southwest Side Alderman Matt O’Shea and Lightfoot’s former deputy mayor for public safety, Susan Lee, to declare Chicago a "city in crisis."
Lightfoot, for her part, has acknowledged she “wears the jacket” for Chicago crime but has attributed the city’s violence spikes to the pandemic disrupting the criminal justice system, lax prosecutors and illegal guns, while pointing out that crime is up across the country.
In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, Lightfoot said people throughout Chicago are afraid because of street violence but said her administration is making long-needed changes that will help curb crime over time.
“A lot of what we’re experiencing right now is a result of ignoring systemic problems, not making the connections between the lack of investment and violence, and refusing for way too long in this city to address these problems, and the chickens are coming home to roost,” Lightfoot said.
“If you are in a neighborhood, as a young Black or brown man, and you do not see any hope, you don’t see that people care about you, that they’re not investing in you, you don’t see opportunity, that is the breeding ground for the kind of violent outbursts that we’re seeing.”
The mayor also reiterated her “total confidence” in Brown, whose tenure since being hired as the police superintendent in spring 2020 has been marked by spikes in crime. There are only a “small handful” of people in the country who could lead the department, she said.
“I know in my heart, but I also know from my experience, that David Brown is exactly the right leader for this time,” Lightfoot said. “We are going through a transition in the Chicago Police Department. We are addressing a lot of long-standing challenges that just simply haven’t been dealt with.
“No one’s satisfied with where we are with violence, and particularly violence related to gun violence. But (there’s) not any one person that can solve that problem and I’m very clear eyed about that,” Lightfoot added. “I can’t solve that problem alone as the mayor and David Brown can’t solve that alone as the superintendent of police.”
How Lightfoot addresses rising crime is a major issue for Chicago. If people and businesses don’t feel safe, they’ll leave, exacerbating the city’s economic and public safety challenges. But Lightfoot’s handling of crime also poses a substantial political risk for the mayor as she considers a potential reelection campaign in 2023.
University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Chris Mooney said local mayors may not have as much control over crime as the public thinks, but they’re held responsible for it regardless, “like presidents and the economy.”
“In this case, she is really sort of at the mercy of some of these larger trends,” Mooney said. “She’s riding a tiger and she has to find out if she can control that without getting eaten.”
Among the problems Chicago faces: The number of city police is down to 12,140 officers, compared with 13,181 two years ago, according to the city’s inspector general’s office.
Many of those officers are deeply disillusioned and concerned by what they perceive as a lack of support from city officials. After Officer Ella French was killed by a gunman on Aug. 7, a group of officers shunned Lightfoot at the hospital by turning their backs on her, a symbolic low point in her relationship with city cops.
In Friday’s interview, Lightfoot said the country is living through a polarized era when mayors and other elected officials are “portrayed as these kind of cartoon characters that bear no resemblance to the truth.” She said she is committed to supporting cops but also reforming the department, a balancing act that’s led her to face criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.
“I’m a former federal prosecutor. I believe very strongly in law enforcement. I do. And law enforcement includes police,” Lightfoot said. “But I’m a Black woman who’s lived in the city for over 30 years. I’m very cognizant of the history of law enforcement, local law enforcement, and particularly, local law enforcement in Chicago.”
Lightfoot said she has kept in touch with police she worked with as a federal prosecutor but recalled there was a general resistance by cops to hearing allegations of misconduct against fellow officers.
“If there’s a corrupt cop out there, that tarnishes your badge,” Lightfoot recalled saying. “People are going to paint with one brush. That hurts you.”
Slowly, she said, that culture is changing, but there’s still much work to be done.
At the same time, Lightfoot said police face unfair criticism.
“(People say) ‘There’s just no good. They’re all evil. They’re all corrupt.’ It doesn’t matter what color it is, doesn’t matter what their backgrounds is, doesn’t matter what things they do to save our residents, ‘there’s no good there,’” Lightfoot said. “(A) police officer who tried to resuscitate that young girl, who had her blood all over him, who tried desperately to save her life — you want to tell me that guy’s evil? And there’s lots of examples of that that happen every single day, where our officers are doing heroic, heroic work.”
Lightfoot cited two key points when praising Brown and the Police Department under his leadership: a rising clearance rate for homicides and a requirement implemented by Brown last summer that officers on the street do some form of community service project each week.
“Our officers need to see our residents for who they are, not just a crime statistics, not just that something on the police blotter, they need to get in and engage with community members that they are sworn to serve and protect in some circumstances that (aren’t) just a law enforcement action, swooping in with lights and sirens,” Lightfoot said. “By the same token, our residents need to see our offices in some other context than in law enforcement action.”
One of the key changes Lightfoot has implemented as mayor is spending roughly $35 million on violence interruption groups that the city has historically dismissed. Advocates have applauded the mayor’s commitment but called for much more funding.
The mayor has also launched a program, Invest South/West, aimed at funding projects that spur economic development and stability in Black and brown neighborhoods.
Criticism of Lightfoot’s policies has come via numerous sources, from conservative pro-police aldermen to members of the Democratic Socialist caucus.
Lee, Lightfoot’s former deputy mayor for public safety who left to work for an anti-violence group run by former President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, wrote an op-ed with O’Shea declaring that the city is failing on crime. Duncan is said to be considering a run for Chicago mayor in 2023, though he has said through a spokesperson that he’s focused on anti-violence efforts.
“It is hard to look at the number of shootings and homicides in Chicago over the last 20 months and find a silver lining,” Lee and O’Shea wrote in the column, published by the Chicago Sun-Times. “By every measure, our city is in crisis and our efforts to keep our communities and our police safe are simply falling short.”
Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who previously served as Lightfoot’s floor leader and is also considered a potential 2023 mayoral candidate, echoed their criticism. He said residents in his community feel unsafe and criticized Brown’s policies.
“I think the statistics are showing he isn’t doing a good job,” Villegas said.
Northwest Side Alderman Nick Sposato said it isn’t fair to blame Lightfoot or Brown for the city’s problems. Sposato, himself a former firefighter, represents many cops and first responders and backs the mayor.
“I believe people are entitled to their opinions. It’s not something I agree with them on,” Sposato said. “Do I think the mayor could be a little bit more supportive or forceful in her support for the police? Yes. Do I think she’s anti-police? No.”
Last month, Lightfoot pledged to increase the Police Department’s budget as she laid out the city’s deficit. Alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, 33rd, said the city is repeating a mistake it always makes when crime goes up.
“Every time there has been a spike in violence, we have added Chicago Police officers,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “Historically, we’ve been investing in policing more than any other service in the city. In terms of the budget, the main service the city provides is police.”
Instead, she said, city officials should follow the recommendations of the Kerner Commission in 1968, which was set up to study the causes of 1960s riots. It concluded that a lack of economic opportunities and housing, and a malicious criminal justice system, led to upheaval in Black American neighborhoods. Its recommendation was, essentially, to invest in communities.
“I don’t think this is rocket science. I think people are hurting, people are desperate, so besides the approach of having violence interruption with all that entails, we can definitely send outreach workers to build relationships and try to de-escalate tensions, but you need the structure to back up the work,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “You need the jobs. You need the housing. We don’t have that right now.”
Asked if she agrees with Lee and O’Shea that the city is in crisis, Lightfoot told the Tribune “that people are afraid and it’s hitting different people in different neighborhoods, different families, different backgrounds, differently.”
But, she said, “I will work with anybody who is coming to the table with concrete solutions that are realistic and that are really, I think, a product of looking at the entire ecosystem.”
(Chicago Tribune reporter Jeremy Gorner contributed. )