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Chicago mayor race: Nine mayoral candidates’ crime-fighting platforms

South Side resident Sherri Allen-Reeves is still looking for a candidate to support Chicago mayor and, like many voters, she wants someone who can best address the city’s violent crime.

Allen-Reeves, 60, said she and her Auburn Gresham neighbors tend to live each day in a “state of fear.”

“Always looking over your shoulder when you’re in the gas station, trying to make sure that you don’t get snatched up by someone,” Allen-Reeves said.

The longtime Chicago resident said crime is not a new concern — and she’s looking for a candidate with fresh ideas.

“How do we deal with this? I mean, the reality for me is that there is something systemically wrong with how we’re managing this, how we’re talking about it,” she said. “I’m not sure who is having the conversations to break the cycle.”

Chicago had 697 murders in 2022. As horrendous as the year was, the murder tally was just seven more than the city’s annual average over the last half-century. Chicago hasn’t had fewer than 500 murders since 2015 and hasn’t had fewer than 400 since 1965.

When it comes to violent crime in Chicago, there are no good old days. But residents would not know it from flipping on their TVs, as several candidates have released ads focused on the city’s crime.

“Crime is out of control,” former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas says in an ad that hit airwaves this month.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the issue is more complicated than her opponents think: “Anyone that says there are simple solutions is lying,” a supporter in one of her TV ads says.

All nine mayoral candidates have released at least a brief public safety plan — or, in Lightfoot’s case, touted what she posed as her achievements in office. All together, the candidates are talking up more than 100 promises and efforts for curbing crime.

Non-policing approaches

To one extent or another, all the candidates talk about the root causes of violence, such as a lack of jobs and training for young people, a dearth of mental health resources, and economic disinvestment.

But, responding to questions from WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times, most of the candidates said they would address those ills without shifting resources from the police. Only state Rep. Kam Buckner and South Side activist Ja’Mal Green said they would reallocate CPD’s budget to programs that address root causes of crime.

“This is not an either/or proposition, as we have continuously proven,” said Lightfoot, who has increased police spending every year since she took office in 2019.

Chicago mayoral candidates (from left) community activist Ja’Mal Green, Ald. Sophia King (4th), Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner, businessman Wille Wilson, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), and US Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, get ready to debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio, Thursday evening. Crime was the major issue discussed that night.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Lightfoot points to her main economic investment program, dubbed INVEST South/West, an effort to use public dollars to attract private development in 10 high-need communities. Of her eight challengers, only Buckner and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) — who both represent parts of the South Side — are promising to continue that program.

All but Lightfoot and US Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who represents a swath of the Southwest Side, have said they would reopen city mental health clinics shuttered by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

And most of the candidates see opportunities for young people as crucial, vowing apprenticeships and job training for teens. Green’s public safety plan includes universal pre-school starting at age 3.

While most of the candidates have avoided promising dollar amounts for violence prevention work, Ald. Sophia King (4th) vows $200 million a year. King, who represents another part of the South Side, says some of the money would pay people at “highest risk for gun violence” $600 per week if they participate in violence intervention work.

The Lightfoot administration has stepped up city support for community violence intervention in which former gang members reach out to people involved with gun violence and connect them to jobs, trauma therapy and services.

But that support needs to expand, says Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, who employs dozens of former gang members on the South and West sides. “We got to go to scale,” he said. “So I want to hear from candidates: Do they have the stomach to go to the taxpayers and look in their budget?”

Numerous candidates — including García, Green, King and Sawyer — say they would quickly expand mobile teams designed to curtail the police role in handling mental health crises.

Policing approaches

Despite increased defund-the-police activism in recent years, most mayoral candidates seem resigned to — or even enthusiastic about — the Police Department’s role as the city’s main instrument against gun violence.

Of 298 big cities reporting in 2020 to the FBI, Chicago had more police officers per capita than any except Washington, DC, according to a WBEZ analysis of the data.

King, Sawyer, Vallas and businessman Willie Wilson, nevertheless, are all promising to bring back some retired cops for roles in both the patrol and detective bureaus.

That prospect worries some experts.

“We need to make sure those officers are bought into the goals of reform and constitutional policing,” and not into abusive tactics that have long been used by the Police Department, said Kim Smith, the program director of the University of Chicago’s crime and education laboratory

Most of the mayoral candidates, meanwhile, appear to favor shifting away from citywide and specialized police units. Candidates are pushing plans to strengthen ties between officers and neighborhoods.

Sawyer, the elderperson, proposed in his public-safety plan to create incentives for officers to spend more years in a district and focus on “community policing.”

Vallas, the former schools chief, is promising “beat integrity” in which each of the city’s 277 police territories would have at least one officer at any hour.

Police officers attend the Chicago Police Department's graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier last year.

Police officers attend the Chicago Police Department’s graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier last year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Other mayoral candidates are promising more foot patrols.

“Fewer and fewer officers walk the beat,” Buckner, the state lawmaker, said in his written plan. “Instead, they drive from hotspot to hotspot and miss out on getting to know the real fabric of the communities they serve.”

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who represents parts of the West Side, would scrap Shotspotter gunfire-detection sensors set up in many police districts. The city’s inspector general found those sensors rarely lead to gun-crime evidence.

Police accountability and wellness

Numerous candidates prioritize police accountability in their public safety plans. In a seeming nod to recent controversy over Lightfoot’s handling of a police officer with ties to the Proud Boys hate group, Green said his Police Department would have “zero tolerance for any officer with proven affiliations with any extremist group with a racial agenda.”

Buckner said he’d require use-of-force incidents to be recorded and the video to be posted within 30 days.

Meanwhile, two candidates with tough-on-crime campaigns have advocated for less oversight of police. Wilson has repeated the refrain that he’d take the “handcuffs” off the police and let them do their job. He has cited changes to the department’s policy on foot pursuits that were prompted in part by the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. Vallas, too, has said he wants that policy revoked.

Illinois State Police and Chicago Police SWAT officers respond to a call in the Old Town neighborhood earlier this month.

Illinois State Police and Chicago Police SWAT officers respond to a call in the Old Town neighborhood earlier this month.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayoral hopefuls are also vowing to strengthen police-wellness efforts after another spate of suicides. All nine candidates told WBEZ and the Sun-Times they would limit hours and day-off cancellations to avoid burnout and suicides. The public-safety plans of Green, Sawyer and Wilson all promised to increase the number of CPD clinicians for officers.

Those plans drew applause from Terry Williams, a University of Illinois Chicago police sergeant who grew up in Englewood.

“You’re dealing with trauma on a weekly — at times, daily — basis, and it has to be treated,” Williams said. “Officers are human and they need to be treated as such.”

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. Follow them at @ChipMitchell1 and @MariahWoelfel

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