January 25, 2021

Chicago’s new public safety plan is promising but will be tough to deliver

Of all the things Lori Lightfoot was elected to fix, none is more crucial to Chicago’s future than somehow ending our tale of two cities—one mostly white, prosperous and safe, the other mostly people of color, working-class at best and plagued with violent crime. But how?

We finally have at least a partial answer. In an action a few days ago that didn’t get nearly enough attention, Lightfoot finally laid out her blueprint on how to deal with the crime piece. Titled “Our City, Our Safety: A Comprehensive Plan to Reduce Violence in Chicago,” the proposal is chock full of good stuff. It’s hard to disagree with huge sections of it.

But in talking with outside experts on Chicago and crime, my gut reaction was confirmed. Talk is cheap. Lining up the money and the political will to actually accomplish things is the trick.

An indication of just how difficult it will be to implement this report is embodied in the person Lightfoot’s office provided to discuss this plan with me: Susan Lee, deputy mayor for public safety.

Lee says the report was designed with an eye toward “shifting from police-only solutions to a public health approach” toward violence. Consistent with that, the financially strapped city is hoping that foundations and other private sources will come to the fore with money to back things such as economic development, mental health services, youth crime-diversion programs and the like.

One particularly promising idea, I thought, is establishing a pilot program that in some cases will dispatch not only a police officer but a mental health professional to handle crisis situations. It’s a good idea, one that makes a lot more sense than mere defunding of police on one hand, or mindlessly sending police with guns to deal with volatile domestic disputes and drug cases on the other. How would the Laquan McDonald incident have ended if more than cops were there?

But two days after I spoke with Lee, word leaked that she is headed out, that aldermen want something different and more effective to reverse a terrible year of rising shooting and fatalities.

Welcome to the real world.

Another promising section of the report deals with bulking up support services in neighborhoods that clearly need them and sharply expanding funding for violence-prevention programs, which got just $11 million in this year’s city budget. Such programs were particularly effective in helping Los Angeles emerge from a period of turmoil pitting communities against police in the same way that has occurred here. The report includes some nice metrics to measure whether such expenditures are working as they should or merely wasting money.

But how do you pay for it in a city that faces a $1.2 billion COVID-19-related budget hole? One source I spoke with says at least $50 million a year will be needed to make a real impact. Beyond that, the whole idea of policing reform remains an ambitious and controversial subject. Can’t you just hear the Springfield debate now over the report’s specific proposal to begin licensing police, to make it easier to track and discipline cops with troublesome records?

Then there’s the eyebrow-raising finding in the report that arrests of juveniles for criminal offenses by Chicago police have dropped 75 percent in the past decade. Lee told me that’s part of a national trend as more and more cities move to stop treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. But she couldn’t explain offhand whether that trend is at all linked to the growth in gang conflict here.

Bottom line, Lightfoot’s plan is a beginning in a city where policing strategy has changed from mayor to mayor and season to season. Young people who have jobs and solid support structures, who know that hard work will pay off, are far less likely to get in trouble than someone who sees little future. I think we’re figuring that out.

So let’s take this plan as a starting point and try to determine out how to pay for and implement it. Doing that will be lots tougher than writing a report.

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