Mayor Brandon Johnson’s anti-violence strategy takes ex-Mayor Lightfoot’s plans to a new level in 4 violent neighborhoods

Mayor Brandon Johnson plans a range of resources, including another round of guaranteed basic income, targeted this time to four neighborhoods.

SHARE Mayor Brandon Johnson’s anti-violence strategy takes ex-Mayor Lightfoot’s plans to a new level in 4 violent neighborhoods
Mayor Brandon Johnson answers question from the press at City Hall, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson answers question from the press at City Hall, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

When Mayor Brandon Johnson took the wraps off his “People’s Plan for Community Safety,” it sounded more like a rebranded mix of plans championed by his predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, with violence prevention initiatives bankrolled by business leaders sprinkled in.

But it turns out that Johnson does have at least the bones of his own plan to take the fight against the root causes of crime to a whole new level.

It starts with programs in four Chicago neighborhoods that have long been plagued by violent crime — Englewood, Little Village, Austin and West Garfield Park — and in the “most violent blocks” within those four neighborhoods.

Those four neighborhoods were identified through a host of data points, starting with the 35 most violent police beats. Johnson’s top mayoral aides also factored in: school closings; percentages of residents without either high school diplomas or primary care physicians; the number of people who have been victimized by both fatal and nonfatal shootings; and the unemployment rate.

Flooding crime-plagued neighborhoods with resources

To make a difference in those neighborhoods, Johnson plans a smorgasbord of resources, including another round of guaranteed basic income targeted this time to maximize outcomes only in those four neighborhoods.

Other strategies could include luring student dropouts back to school, providing mental health and trauma support, activating safe spaces for teens and young adults and expanding violence intervention services.

A workforce allocation study with findings made public will also be conducted by the Chicago Police Department, which could ultimately result in reassigning officers to high-crime areas.

Analysis bug


Some of the bureaucratic phrasing Johnson is using is similar to what Lightfoot used to describe her Invest South/West and “Our City, Our Safety” plans. The latter channeled city services ranging from violence intervention to help with jobs, housing and health care to Chicago’s 15 most violent community areas.

Lightfoot’s plan used the term, “whole of government,” while Johnson’s strategy refers to the “full force of government.” The aim, however, is the same: Flood the zone with an array of city and philanthropic resources.

Mayor Brandon Johnson answers question from the press at City Hall, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson recently unveiled a new community safety plan that focuses on four neighborhoods reeling from years of violent crime and disinvestment.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times (file)

A more granular approach

The difference is that Johnson’s more granular approach could be easier to accomplish. His decision to use Round 2 of guaranteed basic income for a smaller group of people, perhaps at a higher level of assistance for a longer period of time, could help deliver the results he seeks.

Instead of offering 5,000 residents $500 a month for one year, the cash assistance could, perhaps, be twice that amount for an indefinite period. Long enough to, as West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) put it, “stabilize folks” in the West Garfield Park neighborhood he represents.

“The number needs to be [high enough] to be helpful and get people to make a different decision,” Ervin told the Sun-Times. “People have basic needs, and we need to help meet those needs while we’re also trying to help them with other items of living,”

For decades, Chicago mayors and their police superintendents have targeted young people most “at risk” of being victims or perpetrators of violent crime. Johnson is conspicuously avoiding the term “at-risk” youth, instead referring to “youth and adults of highest promise.”

‘Labels matter’

“Language and labels matter,” said Garien Gatewood, Johnson’s deputy mayor for community safety. “I know that sometimes when the mayor says we need to love on folks, people assume that he doesn’t want to hold folks accountable. But we can do both. … We can invest in young folks and provide opportunities while also holding people accountable.”

Senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee argued that terminology widely used in the past has exacerbated the problem by “stigmatizing” young people.

“We have to justify — whether it be to the private sector or the public sector — significant investment in these individuals,” Lee said. “Part of the argument is that not only will investing in them lead to sustainable gains in public safety, but it’ll be a boon to our entire community and society when these people become productive and contributing members of it.”

Lightfoot’s single term was defined by the pandemic and the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, and devolved into two devastating rounds of looting.

Over a 24-hour-period on May 31, 2020, there were 18 Chicago homicides — the most violent day in the city’s modern history.

Then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot in October 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her blueprint for violence reduction her “Our City, Our Safety” plan.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lightfoot’s ambitious plan

Four months later, Lightfoot unveiled her ambitious “Our City, Our Safety” plan aimed at narrowing the city’s “safety gap” — which she defined as the disparity between the most and least violent areas.

Homicides continued to rise in 2021 — to their highest levels in a quarter-century. But they fell sharply the following year and have continued to drop this year.

Through Dec. 10, the most recent public crime data available, shootings and homicides are down 13% and 12%, respectively, though robberies and motor vehicle thefts continue to help drive an overall 17% rise in crime. The drop in gun violence came after Lightfoot budgeted $411 million to spend on her signature initiative, with the most cash going to violence intervention programs.

However, the bulk of the city’s violence prevention budget came from one-time federal stimulus funding, and all but 6% of it went unspent by February, according to the Illinois Answers Project. The Lightfoot administration couldn’t manage to get the once-in-a-lifetime avalanche of federal funding out the door.

Johnson hopes to succeed where Lightfoot failed.

His $16.7 billion 2024 budget earmarks $100 million in unspent stimulus funding for anti-violence programming, according to Gatewood, who worked on the “Our City, Our Safety” plan as director of the Illinois Justice Project.

James Crown’s crime reduction strategy

During last week’s mayoral news conference, Eric Smith, vice chair of BMO Bank and co-chair of the Civic Committee Public Task Force, said the business community is also trying to raise $100 million to expand community violence intervention, create jobs for graduates of that program, and perhaps, expand the program to even more neighborhoods.

Smith is one of two executives attempting to carry out the crime-fighting vision of billionaire philanthropist James Crown, one of Chicago’s wealthiest men.

Three weeks before his sudden death in a June 25 single-car wreck at a racetrack near Aspen, Colorado, Crown had outlined an ambitious plan to reduce the number of homicides in Chicago to fewer than 400 a year within five years.

Crown’s crime reduction strategy focused on getting jobs for thousands of people in the most dangerous parts of Chicago, providing millions of dollars for civilian violence intervention programs, strengthening law enforcement agencies and investing in low-income neighborhoods.

The Civic Committee’s strategies were to have a combined cost amounting to “tens of millions of dollars.”

Susan Lee, the architect of Lightfoot’s “Our City, Our Safety” plan,” said she hopes Gatewood’s office builds upon the work of the prior administration. She spent just over a year as Lightfoot’s first deputy mayor for public safety, before leaving an office that turned into a revolving door and fell far short of its lofty promises.

“They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, which is a good thing,” said Susan Lee, now the chief of strategy and policy at Chicago CRED, the anti-violence group led by former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “But what are they going to do to seize the moment now that you’ve been handed this stronger infrastructure?”

Lee acknowledged that there’s data that clearly shows “this stuff works,” but she said the infrastructure has to be scaled up to have a “bigger impact.”

Addressing the robbery surge

A law enforcement source who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating the new mayor said Johnson’s strategy “does nothing for armed robberies, which everybody is terrified about in the city.”

Chicagoans regularly wake up to new waves of overnight robberies, smash-and-grab break-ins and carjackings. Upscale neighborhoods that typically did not have to worry about those crimes before are now frequent targets.

“It seems a little tone-deaf,” the law enforcement source said.

Gatewood strongly disagreed, pointing out that newly appointed Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling, at the mayor’s news conference last week, talked about the “strike forces” he started building throughout the summer to get ahead of the robbery surge, and about the work his officers have done with block clubs and community violence intervention groups to “drive robberies down.”

“The Chicago Police Department would tell you there is progress being made from not only the arrests that they have made, but how they are building more coalitions in communities and how they’re also taking down robbery crews throughout the city,” Gatewood said. “There used to be a lot more robbery crews on CTA that they’ve also been working to take down.”

Before unveiling his new plan, Johnson spent months bringing together “policy working groups” as well as state and county officials.

Ervin and three other Council members with wards overlapping the four targeted neighborhoods — Stephanie Coleman (16th), Mike Rodriguez (22nd), and Emma Mitts (37th) — were asked to host community meetings in their wards to find out what’s already working and build on that foundation. Fifty community leaders were assembled by Ervin alone.

“It’s not government’s place to come into a community and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ We want to be building on the work that’s happening and pull in partners in philanthropy,” said Gatewood, vowing to roll out “an announcement a month” in the new year.

Jason Lee acknowledged that it will “take time” for Johnson’s plan to deliver the “safer, stronger, better Chicago” that he promised during his mayoral campaign.

“It’s not about reinventing every wheel or coming up with something new for the sake of news,” Lee said. “It’s about trying to put together a program that can work, taking the best ideas that are out there and putting the right resources, focus and execution behind it to deliver sustainable results.”

The Latest
What we know so far about the suspected shooter, 20-year-old Thomas Matthew Crooks of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. The attack could alter the tenor and security posture at the Republican National Convention, which will begin Monday in Milwaukee.
Someone opened fire into a crowd gathered in the 9500 block of South Merrill Avenue, Chicago police said.
The former Stevenson High School star could have made $113 million more if he had waited to sign a contract next year.
Two men exited a vehicle and began talking to a man in the 5400 block of Wells Street before opening fire about 7:55 a.m.
Her illness was publicly revealed in a lawsuit filed in 2015 against her former business managers, in which she alleged they mismanaged her money and allowed her health insurance to lapse. She later shared intimate details of her treatment following a single mastectomy.