Turning childhood pain into healing policy — Preckwinkle hoping for rare moment of ‘significant change’

The 73-year-old Cook County Board president is drawing on that perspective now, hopeful for meaningful change — including “dramatically” reducing police funding — but not deluding herself that addressing centuries of racism will come easily.

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, in December; Toni Preckwinkle, then Toni Reed, right, in undated childhood photo.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, in December; Toni Preckwinkle, then Toni Reed, right, in undated childhood photo.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times; Provided

Editor’s note: This article deviates from Sun-Times practice by spelling out a racial slur — an exception made after the reporter and her editors concluded that spelling the word conveys the true pain of the racism the subject experienced.

The past few weeks have been a pretty “poignant moment” for Toni Preckwinkle.

They rekindled painful memories of growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and her walks home from school in the 1950s — when white children would try to beat up Preckwinkle and her younger brother “for the crime of being a nigger,” she said.

“I often say, whatever else happens to me in life, I will never be 7 or 8-years-old and dreading walking home from school and getting beat up again,” Preckwinkle said on Wednesday. “It’s a sort of odd way to frame your experience, I guess, but it’s given me the courage to deal with a lot of other things in life. … It puts things into perspective.”

The 73-year-old Cook County Board president is drawing on that perspective now, hopeful for meaningful change — including “dramatically” reducing police funding and licensing officers — but not deluding herself that trying to address centuries of racism will come easily.

“How the police department relates to the community has to drastically change,” Preckwinkle said.

She still has family in St. Paul, and in Minneapolis, and the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white police officer, as well as the nationwide protests Floyd’s death sparked, have been “sobering.”

“Sobering in that it’s yet another murder of an unarmed black person by the police, and, as I’ve said repeatedly, my belief is that, in this country, Black and Brown people, wherever you are, can be murdered with impunity by the police, so it’s not a situation that’s unique to Minneapolis,” Preckwinkle said. “Nor is it unique to this time or place. This is part of the endemic racism in this country that has been true since our country’s inception, that people of color can be murdered by the police with impunity.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in April.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in April.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Preckwinkle has been “encouraged” by the breadth and intensity of the protests since Floyd’s death and is hopeful for changes to policing across the nation.

That could start with defunding the police — or reducing the investment in police departments and shifting that money toward community programs, social workers and neighborhood reinvestment.

“I think we have to dramatically reduce the amount we spend on law enforcement. I think it doesn’t make sense to think that you can have no police,” Preckwinkle said. “The police can’t be an agent for oppression and enforcers of racial inequality. The police have to be public servants.”

That would mean investing less in policing and more in communities, Preckwinkle said. It also means crafting a licensing exam, as well as some sort of universal training for police officers — much like what is required for nurses, home inspectors or doctors.

It also means getting police out of schools, Preckwinkle said.

“I was a teacher for a decade. You know kids fight. … Bad things happen in schools,” she said. “We dealt with the problem within the school environment, we didn’t put the kids in the criminal justice pipeline for screwing up in school or for fighting with people or whatever. That kind of stuff goes on with teenagers all the time, but you don’t put kids in the criminal justice system for it.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle greets supporters during the Women’s March in Chicago in January.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle greets supporters during the Women’s March in Chicago in January.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“If we’re going to spend $33 million on police [as is currently the case in Chicago’s public schools], let’s spend that $33 million on counselors, on social workers, on nurses in the schools … rather than making it clear to them that schools are part of the criminal justice system, and we’re just waiting for an opportunity to put you in the criminal justice system,” Preckwinkle said.

She also says changing policing, and supporting communities, requires continued commitment to some of the criminal justice reforms the county has already enacted since she took its helm, such as putting money toward anti-recidivism, diminishing the size of both the jail population and the jail itself. Some parts of the Cook County Jail have already been demolished and others are slated for demolition.

The county has invested around $23 million since 2013 toward anti-violence, anti-recidivism and restorative justice measures.

Preckwinkle said she hasn’t spoken to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, or Gov. J.B. Pritzker, about some of the potential changes to policing, although she’s “sure it’s something we could talk about.” Preckwinkle’s conversations with Pritzker have largely focused on both the pandemic and the looting some businesses faced.

Lori Lightfoot, right, shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, right, shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as Rev. Jesse Jackson looks on the day after the 2019 election.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Preckwinkle said she’s hopeful for change, though she has her guard up.

“There are moments in which there’s momentous change — those are rare moments, though, the exception to the rule,” Preckwinkle said. “Most change is incremental, and I’m hoping this is one of those rare moments where there can be significant change. But, as I said, it took 250 years to abolish slavery and generations to give women the right to vote. So, I’m hopeful.”

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