Lightfoot’s gang asset forfeiture ordinance clears committee hurdle

The Committee on Public Safety approved the ordinance by a vote of 10 to 4.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the measures taken to address the increase in carjackings in Chicago during a press conference at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications in Near West Side, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference earlier this month at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to use civil lawsuits to seize illegal proceeds — what she calls “blood money” — from Chicago’s most violent street gangs cleared a City Council committee Thursday over the strenuous objections of civil rights advocates and their Council allies.

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. has argued civil asset forfeiture is a tool “ripe for abuse” that will make the gang violence plaguing Chicago worse, not better — by “making communities poorer” and “further eroding police-community relations.”

On Thursday, the Committee on Public Safety approved the mayor’s ordinance on a 10-to-4 vote.

Progressive Council members branded the ordinance an “80’s-based strategy” being used to fight today’s problems and predicted it will cost the city more in money and employee hours than it can possibly gain in return.

“We … need to have serious policies in place to battle violent crime and to make sure that no one feels afraid to call 911 and that no one feels afraid to walk down the street in front of their home. I’m not convinced that this is it,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez -Rosa (35th), dean of the Socialist Caucus.

“We’re being told, ‘This is a tool. ... We’d like to be able to use it.’ But all the evidence shows that it’s a tool that’s ineffective, that will not make our communities safer, will not prevent crime and, at worst, places our city in a very difficult spot, facing the possibility of lawsuits based upon violating basic constitutional rights.”

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) said she, too, is “very concerned that this is going to end up hurting the very communities they’re claiming it’s going to help.” She pointed to the Chicago Police Department’s error-filled gang database that has not yet been formally replaced.

“We are studying another gang database. And we’re gonna use that one to work on this. How are we making sure that we are not making the same mistakes that we have done in the past — hurting communities that are already suffering?” Rodriguez Sanchez said.

Deputy Police Chief Ernest Cato said the new gang database was designed to prevent “the lawsuits that have been placed against us.”

“We vetted it multiple times. We continue to vet it. We’ve walled off information to the point where we only have a little bit over 2,000 on that list right now,” Cato said.

“The goal right now is to ensure that no one of color — or no one — suffers any type of harm from a database. ... It’s a very stringent process. ... With the new database you’re talking about, that’s gonna be a vetting process on and on. Non-stop.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose West Side ward includes the gang and drug-plagued Harrison District, pushed back against those who claim civil lawsuits against alleged gang leaders will cost more than they could possibly gain.

“We can’t look at it like we’re gonna spend $5,000 to get $2,000. We need to look at what’s in the best interest of the community. How we can have additional tools to combat violence and criminal activity?” Ervin said.

“I’m in the heart of the 11th District on the West Side of Chicago. Crime is a major issue here. What our community is saying is, ‘We want tools that are going to help curtail the activity that’s happening on the street. Peoples’ quality of life is impacted.”

Lightfoot has sharpened the language to target gang leaders and their organizations, not rank-and-file members, amid concerns that innocent relatives could get caught up in the web of seizures.

Those facing loss of property also would have to be notified by mail of the case filed against them and empowered to protect their property from seizure by convincing a judge they were in the dark.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Steve Kane said the ordinance will be used sparingly — in part, because every lawsuit it files will cost the city $100,000 and 1,500 hours.

“I would anticipate no more than a few cases during the first year,” Kane said, acknowledging the city would file only those cases it is relatively certain it will win.

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