Cutting funding for police could lead to a better and safer Chicago

Chicago can’t keep giving 40 percent of its operations budget to a system of punishment that does nothing to address root problems.

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Protesters on June 3 in Phoenix, Arizona, demanding that the Phoenix City Council defund the city’s police department.

Matt York/AP

In the face of unprecedented nationwide protests over police killings, many cities are finally grappling with something that black and brown activists have been telling us for years: the massive resources we pour into policing make us less safe, not more. 

Faced with overwhelming need for investment in housing, health care and services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, cities including Los Angeles and New York are considering cuts to spending on police. And on Sunday, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intentions to disband the city’s police department and “dramatically rethink” its approach to public safety. 

Here in Chicago, where nearly 40 percent of our operations budget goes to the Chicago Police Department, it’s urgent that we take up this conversation in City Council. 

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This weekend, the call to defund police emanated from tens of thousands of people who marched and rallied at Union Park and around the city. These massive demonstrations follow years of organizing to demand justice for young, black Chicagoans killed by police — Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, RonnieMan Johnson and so many more — and to raise the alarm about the city diverting $33 million for police in schools this year and spending at least $98 million on a new police training academy on the West Side — all while we’re told we can’t afford nurses and social workers for our students and affordable housing and mental healthcare in our neighborhoods. 

Amid massive cuts to education and public services, the Chicago Police Department’s budget has grown every year since 2012. We now spend almost $5 million on policing every day. That’s the equivalent of what the city spends on five months of mental health services ($9.4 million per year), 18 months of substance abuse treatment ($2.6 million per year), or 32 months of violence prevention programs ($1.5 million per year).

And this figure doesn’t even include the more than $700 million in police misconduct settlements paid out since 2011, nor the additional costs associated with the “police brutality bonds” the city borrows from Wall Street to pay for the settlements. 

Chicago needs enormous public investment to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and when we sit down to hash out a budget this year, we will be faced with a choice: We can cut policing, or we can slash basically everything else. While we also intend to fight for passage of new, progressive sources of revenue that will expand the resources available to our city, we can’t keep giving 40 percent of them to a system of punishment that does nothing to address root problems. 

That brings us to another argument for cutting police spending that may be more difficult for some to swallow, but that we have to grapple with all the same: The police do not make us safer because their fundamental role is managing inequality, not improving public safety

After a week in which police arrested 1,258 protesters, kneeled on a black woman’s neck, beat and pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters — including the Chicago Police Board president — and were recorded covering their badges, flipping off protesters and using homophobic slurs, Mayor Lightfoot, who campaigned on police accountability, has promised another round of minor reforms to the Chicago Police Department to address Chicago officers’ cultural sensitivity and mental health. 

These reforms have been tried elsewhere — in fact, Minneapolis enacted extensive reforms in 2015 that included mindfulness and implicit bias training, body cameras and more — yet that did not stop a Minneapolis officer from brutally murdering George Floyd while other officers looked on.

As Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender acknowledged Sunday, “Efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period.”

If we want safe and thriving communities, we need to address the root of the current political crisis: the growing racial and economic inequality in our society that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is well documented that measures like expanding access to substance-abuse treatment, mental health care and after-school programs all have a clear and sustainable impact on reducing crime. We need to fully fund public programs that are proven to reduce inequality and improve public safety in ways that policing fundamentally does not.

Chicago is not broke, but the mayor’s priorities are. The best way to keep our communities safe and address police brutality is not by spending more on policing, but instead by investing in jobs, education and health care. It’s time for our city to seriously look at cutting the police budget and directing those funds to the public programs that will support working-class and poor Chicagoans. 

Daniel La Spata, Jeanette Taylor, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Andre Vasquez are aldermen, respectively, of Chicago’s 1st, 20th, 25th, 33rd, 35th and 40th Wards.

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