After Chicago’s deadliest year in a quarter-century, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her handpicked top cop signaled to police leaders in a closed-door meeting Tuesday that they’ll lose their jobs if they can’t bolster arrest numbers and get officers to engage more with city residents, sources said.
However, Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown didn’t present clear plans to address the city’s surging violent crime or the department-wide staffing woes while giving the directive, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the high-level meeting at Public Safety Headquarters.
One of the sources said the message was “make do with what you have to get more arrests,” generate more positive interactions between cops and community members and “clear more murders or you will be demoted.” The source called the tone “threatening.” The other source said the threat of a demotion wasn’t overt but strongly insinuated.
A spokesman for Lightfoot didn’t respond to requests to comment on the meeting. A Brown spokesman declined to comment.
Instituting an official arrest quota wasn’t relayed to those in attendance, but sources said they were told the numbers would be monitored. Brown later told reporters at a subsequent news conference that the department this year aims to log 1.5 million positive community interactions as he and Lightfoot again sought to quell fears about violent crime.
Such outreach, according to a department directive, is defined as any “brief, spontaneous, high visibility interaction that is positive, informative, helpful, or constructive in nature.” Officers are required to report the interactions to dispatchers.
But sources said the push to raise the department’s flagging arrest numbers will likely only lead to more petty arrests, which could then erode the public trust the department is looking to build with the community interactions. As a result, one source said, “Black and Brown communities are going to get hit the hardest.”
“They want to have their cake and eat it, too,” the source added of Lightfoot and Brown.
At their marathon news conference after the meeting, the two leaders continued to hit familiar notes without detailing new policing strategies to address the pervasive violence that has galvanized the city. Chicago in 2021 saw 836 homicides, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Lightfoot again pushed her controversial gang forfeiture ordinance, urged federal agencies to crack down on illegal guns and called for a moratorium on electronic monitoring for violent crime suspects — an appeal that was ultimately shot down. And while Lightfoot didn’t reiterate the exact message relayed to police leaders during the meeting, she said she told department leadership “if you don’t go to bed every night, and if you don’t wake up every morning, thinking about what you can individually do more to make our city safer, you’re in the wrong job.”
For his part, Brown promised to add 200 more homicide detectives and set a goal to collect 14,000 applications from prospective new officers, roughly double the number collected last year. During the meeting, he also promised a class of 100 detectives in the next two months, one source said.
Still, hiring has remained slow and the department has continued to lose officers to retirement and other municipalities. The two sources agreed that manpower remains “the elephant in the room,” noting that those who speak up about staffing issues are either chastised or kept out of conversations.
Arrests plunge in 2021
Meanwhile, arrests have fallen significantly.
Through December of last year, less than 12% of 203,530 reported crimes resulted in an arrest, according to city data analyzed by the Sun-Times. That’s way down from the numbers from 2019 that were presented during the meeting. That year, arrests were made in more than 21% of the 260,889 reported crimes.
In addition to the dwindling ranks, one source pointed to a variety of reasons for the dropoff: Weed was legalized in 2020, COVID-19 emerged, new reforms were implemented and more charges have been rejected or downgraded. Nevertheless, the source said the huge decrease is “not acceptable.”
At the same time, the department remains under a federal consent decree aimed at overhauling its training, policies and practices. But the sources said some departmental directives, like the foot pursuit policy, have already hindered officers who feel unsupported and remain fearful of making missteps or putting themselves in situations that could lead to disciplinary action.
Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the Illinois chapter of the ACLU, insisted the plan to press for more arrests is “alarming” and appears to be a step in the wrong direction. He said the department should instead be focused on complying with the consent decree and improving community policing.
“How does it help that the first time there’s an outcry to go right back to those same failed policies?” Yohnka said. “There’s one thing that I can guarantee you is it won’t work.”