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Is Chicago ready for police reform?

Chicagoans are more comfortable reallocating police funds to pay for more community services versus “defunding” the police.

Activists hold a Chicago rally calling for the defunding of police on July 24, 2020.
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In this season of polls, we should always be mindful of our implicit bias — which is the tendency to see what we already believe to be true and to block out any information that conflicts with our views.

With that in mind, consider this new poll of Chicago voters on public safety done for a non-profit news organization called Wirepoints. The poll shows that “defunding police” — a phrase initially undefined in the poll — is unpopular by a 51-39% margin. Notably, these voters overwhelmingly support Black Lives Matter by a margin of 76-24%.

That finding alone might prompt some to dismiss the “defund police” movement. Digging deeper, however, there is a palpable appetite for reforming the Chicago Police Department (CPD). While the budget implications of police reform are unclear, there is deep frustration with the police and with the way the city is handling surging levels of violent crime.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a 61% overall approval rating and solid marks on economic development (50-37%) and especially coronavirus (58-39%), support plummets when it comes to crime and gun violence. When asked how she is handling violent crime, the poll finds 62-31% negative to positive and 63-30% negative to positive for handling gun violence. On police reform specifically, it’s 53-39% negative to positive.

The poll gets more interesting as it explores the implications of “defunding police.” By a 54-40% margin, people believe defunding police would mean fewer police officers in their neighborhoods. By an even larger margin, 62-33%, voters believe defunding police could lead to more crime in their neighborhoods.

However, by a healthy margin, 52-43%, voters believe that defunding police could mean more social services. And, roughly half of voters agree that defunding police is needed to, “Start a real dialogue about the changes needed for policing in Chicago.”

As for the police themselves, there are also mixed feelings. Overwhelmingly, by a 53-13% margin, people want police to spend “more time” in their neighborhoods. And by a 60-35% margin, voters were “confident” police would treat them with “courtesy and respect.” Responses to this particular question varied widely by race, however, with 79% of Whites versus 41% of Blacks feeling “confident” — a 38-point difference.

Overall, CPD is viewed negatively by 51% of voters, versus 44% who view the department positively. And just 44% think the presence of a police officer makes them feel safer, while 19% feel less safe and 33% think it makes no difference. Put another way, more than half of Chicago voters think a police officer makes them less safe or makes no difference — not exactly a ringing vote of confidence for an agency costing local taxpayers $1.65 billion a year.

Approximately equal percentages (45% and 48%) agree there is “systemic racism” in the department as agree that the problem is just “a few bad apples.” And, when asked whether “police brutality of minorities” or “crime in your neighborhood” is the bigger problem, voters are evenly split, 44% and 46% respectively.

So, if you happen to oppose police reform you can certainly find things to like in this poll. Similarly, if you are an advocate for police reform, you will also find things to like, though “defund police” may not be the best way to frame your agenda.

In a recent set of focus groups conducted by Chicago CRED on the topic of “reimagining public safety,” we found a higher comfort level with “reallocating” police funds to pay for more community services vs. “defund.” A city budget survey also found overwhelming support for shifting dollars from the police budget to pay for community services.

Having presented arguments on both sides of the defunding issue, the poll returns to the core question and finds virtually no change: 53% still oppose defunding police while 41% support it. One thing, however, is clear: Chicagoans want a dialogue on how to make their city safer and, while they see police as a big part of the solution, they are not the only part.

Peter Cunningham is a communications consultant working with local violence prevention organizations.

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