Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been under pressure to defund the Chicago Police Department ever since the death of George Floyd triggered civil unrest and a racial reckoning that swept the nation.
In her second budget address, Lightfoot threw several political bones to those activists, even as she declared police officers are “not the enemy” and ignored broader calls to dramatically reduce CPD’s $1.6 billion budget.
The first and most tangible concession is the mayor’s decision to eliminate 618 police vacancies, nearly all of them sworn officers, at a time when the pace of retirements has escalated and disgruntled police officers are walking off the job, fearing the mayor doesn’t have their backs.
The second was her promise to test what she called a “co-responder model” that begins the painstaking process of “building the infrastructure for an alternative means of response” instead of requiring police to be the “first and only responders on every call for help.”
Lightfoot warned such a system must be “tested on the streets” and “built over time.” There are “no magic wands to wave, no snapping of fingers or catchy slogans” to get it done. It must address Chicago’s “urban realities and not those of some other city that does not reflect our diversity.”
The third and more symbolic concession was Lightfoot’s decision to openly acknowledge what she called the “complicit role” police departments have historically played in “brutally enforcing racist, Jim Crow laws, depriving Black and Brown people” of their “full rights as citizens.”
She added: “These are not just ancient times, but recent history, right here in Chicago. And so, in breaking down these barriers, we must also continue to closely scrutinize all policing practices and policies to eliminate any and all bias,” she said.
But the mayor argued vociferously that “having fidelity to this essential work of bias-free policing” does not require “dismantling our police department.”
“In this moment in Chicago, we cannot responsibly enact any policies that make communities less safe,” she said, without mentioning the 50% spike in homicides and shootings that has Chicago on pace to top 750 murders in 2020.
“While we will slow the rate of growth, with a resulting $80 million in corporate fund savings, on my watch we will never make cuts or policy changes that inhibit the core mission of the police department, which is to serve and protect.”
During an hour-long budget address — 20% of it devoted to police issues — Lightfoot argued that “literal defunding means cutting officer positions” and making CPD less diverse.
Pointing to seniority requirements in police contracts, she said cutting current jobs means “we would be compelled to cut the youngest, most diverse and well-trained officers in the department. That is not in anyone’s interest.”
Lightfoot is a former Police Board president who co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the furor that followed the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
The task force’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department prompted the U.S. Justice Department to do the same, setting the stage for federal court oversight over CPD and the consent decree that, as she put it, “requires continued funding” of training and accountability initiatives.
On Wednesday, the mayor tried to straddle the political fence, delivering an emotional defense of Chicago Police officers, who have endured two rounds of looting that ravaged giants swath of downtown, River North and Lincoln Park along with commercial corridors on the South and West Sides.
The mayor noted Chicago Police officers have been “shot at 67 times” this year, and 10 of them were “struck by bullets.” She said that “remarkable statistic” does not include times they’ve been “stabbed, fired upon with injury-causing fireworks” or suffered “broken limbs and other injuries” after being attacked by crowds that “came to our city armed for a fight.”
To underscore the point, Lightfoot recounted the harrowing heroics of four Chicago Police officers in recent incidents.
Her voice broke as she recalled how Officer Kristian Walker tried and failed to save a 7-year-old girl with a bullet hole in her forehead and an exit wound in the back of her skull.
“Our police officers are not our enemies. They are someone’s son’s or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister. They are as complicated and imperfect as all of us. … They are our neighbors and an important part of who we are as Chicagoans,” Lightfoot said.
Well aware the police budget will become a focal point for contentious hearings on her 2021 budget, Lightfoot told aldermen: “As you ... appropriately scrutinize how dollars are allocated toward public safety, I urge you to look beyond the hashtags and think about the men and women who courageously report for duty every day on our behalf to keep us safe.”