The message seems pretty clear to us.
More than 38,000 Chicago residents filled out an on-line budget survey and, in every section of Chicago, the public overwhelmingly supports shifting resources from policing to community services to address mental health, homelessness, youth crime and gun violence.
Among 10 categories of public service, policing ranked last in terms of importance, while community services were first, followed by public health and infrastructure. When asked, hypothetically, how to allocate new revenues to the city, just 6% went to policing, while 22% was invested in community services and 21% in public health.
Eighty-six percent of the survey respondents said community services and public health need more resources, while only 9% said the same of police. In fact, though, policing now accounts for 34% of the budget while community services are 14% and public health is just 4%.
Not surprisingly, the people who completed the survey overwhelmingly support reallocating existing resources rather than raising taxes. And, when asked where reallocated resources should come from, 87% selected “police services.”
We all appreciate the hard work that police do and none of us want to “defund police.” But people understand that when it comes to reducing gun violence, police mostly react after the shooting while a true “public health” approach is proactive.
Violence prevention programs like the ones we, at Chicago CRED and Youth Peace Center of Roseland, manage in Roseland hire outreach workers to mediate disputes among those most at risk of shooting or being shot. We recruit them into programs to help turn around their lives. We give them jobs. We hire them to create a peaceful presence that deters shooters and reduces tensions.
Consider Malik Tiger, one of our participants. As a teen he got involved in street life and ended up getting shot six times. Miraculously, he survived. Today, he is working, paying rent and taking care of his family. There are thousands more like him in Chicago — desperate for a chance — and even more desperate to escape the only life they’ve known.
Violence prevention efforts don’t work perfectly, but in Roseland this year, fatal shootings are down by about a third while they are up about 50% citywide. Similar programs are in more than a dozen other neighborhoods across Chicago. If we took them to scale, they could really make a difference.
Today, on a per-capita basis, Chicago has one of the largest police forces in the country. This year, we are spending $1.65 billion dollars for policing, but just $11 million for violence prevention — a ratio of 150 to 1.
When you add in prosecutions, incarceration and health care for gun victims, the full cost of gun violence in Chicago is more like $3 billion or $4 billion per year. We could hire a lot of young men for that money, get them to put down their guns, and give them a path into the legal economy.
The other issue is that we keep asking police to do many things that don’t require an armed officer: noise complaints, domestic disputes, mental health crises, school safety, homelessness and even enforcing traffic laws. Meanwhile, many violent crimes remain unsolved.
National studies show that police spend maybe 5% of their time dealing with violent crime. The rest is devoted to non-violent crime or non-criminal activity. It’s time to rethink the role of police and ask whether other professionals should handle some of this work.
To the City of Chicago’s credit, its new violence reduction plan affirms the value of violence prevention programs, but it makes no financial commitments. Without the money, it’s wishful thinking.
Right now, the city has about 850 vacancies in the Chicago Police Department. That adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars we are not spending. If even half of those vacancies were reallocated to community services, it could generate $60 million to $80 million dollars next year.
As CRED founder and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested in a Sun-Times opinion piece recently, through attrition over five years, Chicago could free up hundreds of millions of dollars each year to invest in a comprehensive public health approach to gun violence — and we would still have one of the largest police departments in the country.
Convincing the public to shrink the size of the police department at a time when gun violence is rising is challenging, but the city budget survey clearly suggests people have an open mind. The bottom line is this: what we’re doing right now is not working.
As voices from the community, speaking on behalf of thousands of gun violence victims all across this city, we respectfully urge our elected officials to reconsider the role of police and reinvest savings into “public health” programs that can make our neighborhoods safer.
Steve Gates is a lifelong resident of Roseland who works with Chicago Beyond and Chicago CRED to reduce violence. Wendy Jones is the founder and executive director of the Youth Peace Center of Roseland.
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.