This story was originally published by City Bureau on November 20, 2020. City Council has since approved Lightfoot’s budget.
Since this summer, the Defund CPD campaign has held mass trainings, canvassing, and phone banking to explain police abolition to Chicagoans. Their official demand: to cut the $1.8 billion police budget by 75 percent and reinvest that money in community-led programs, from anti-violence work to social services.
Yet Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made her opposition to the movement clear. “On my watch, we will never make cuts or policy changes that inhibit the core mission of the police department, which is to serve and protect us all,” said Lightfoot, despite proposing a relatively minor cut to next year’s police budget.
Budget experts agree: the political will is simply not there for massive cuts to the police budget at this time, especially as enthusiasm from summer Black Lives Matter protests has faded and gun violence rates rise. Even progressive City Council members have stayed away from proposing across-the-board cuts—but a few concrete proposals have emerged to chip away at the 37 percent of the city’s corporate fund that went to CPD this year.
In the meantime, Defund CPD organizers are working to persuade people to support police abolition as a way to improve public safety, invest in communities in need, and dismantle a criminal justice system they say is inherently racist.
That means “bringing folks into a conversation that may challenge some of the things they already believe, and inviting folks into seeing the world differently, and seeing that more is possible,” said Asha Ransby-Sporn, a community organizer with the Defund CPD campaign and the Black Abolitionist Network. “We want to put pressure on [Lightfoot]. And we want to do that through massive popular support for our demands, to the point where we create an environment where it’s politically impossible . . . to ignore.”
Whether they’ll reach the tipping point in popular support remains to be seen. But as City Council prepares to vote on Chicago’s budget for 2021, a few proposals on the table could actually put a dent in the police budget. Here’s a look at what’s at stake.
Not hiring new officers
As City Bureau and Injustice Watch previously reported, Lightfoot’s initial budget proposal included an $80 million decrease in tax funds to the Chicago Police Department, $34 million of which will come from not filling vacant positions. This process of not filling positions is called attrition and Chicago isn’t the first city to utilize it to meet budget gaps. Cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Austin have also cut the number of sworn officers through not filling vacancies and, for some, temporarily ceasing new cadet classes.
Northwestern University criminologist and policing expert Wesley Skogan said that while attrition is a viable strategy to cut police budgets, its long-term impact depends on how long a city is willing to sustain it in the future.
“Let’s pretend that it’s about 500 officers a year and the average cost of a Chicago police officer is about $150,000 a year. So if you would reduce the size of the force by just one year, you’re saving [$75 million]. And of course, you can save the next year if you don’t do any catch up,” said Skogan.
Currently, 89 percent of CPD’s budget is devoted to personnel. The strategy can be used as a way to quietly defund the police while saving political face without political risk with significant savings, according to Skogan.
The Peace Book
Proposed by GoodKids MadCity youth organizers in July, the Peace Book would reallocate two percent (about $35 million) of the current police budget into community-led violence prevention programs such as employment opportunities, counseling and mediation, violence interruption, education, and youth engagement.
The idea is supported by Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor (20th) who, starting in December, will begin talks with violence prevention groups and youth organizers to collaboratively write the ordinance.
“The city claims that it does this type of work but . . . without having young people at the table,” Taylor said. She added that either she or Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) will introduce the ordinance to City Council in 2021.
GKMC hopes to create and fund a “Peace Book Commission,” a coalition of community groups that would train and pay peacekeepers to facilitate peace treaties between gangs and street factions, provide wrap-around services for violence-affected youth, create art and murals of Chicagoans whose lives have been lost to gun violence as well as provide real-time updates of gun violence occurring in the city.
They say that paying community members a livable wage to become trained peacekeepers addresses not only violence within communities but the root cause of it—poverty.
“We want to stop people from going out [and] retaliating against their enemies, and figure out ways that we can transform them and not throw them in jail and have them go away. Because that don’t do nothing but create a circle of retaliatory violence,” said GKMC organizer Miracle Boyd.
To GKMC organizers, investing in and being present within communities is the biggest tool in violence prevention. On Halloween, the group held a block party on 53rd Street in Hyde Park to demonstrate the power of community-led peacekeeping.
“If you stand on blocks all day, and you have people do that, there will be no gun violence,” said GKMC organizer Jalen Kobayashi.
Treatment Not Trauma ordinance
Nationally at least one in four people killed by police has mental illness. Introduced by Rodriguez Sanchez in September, the Treatment Not Trauma proposed ordinance seeks to provide 24/7 mental health response to emergency calls by reallocating funds away from CPD and into public mental health services.
The proposal would reallocate an estimated $150 million (pending a full city assessment) from the CPD budget to reopen and expand mental health clinics throughout the city. The trained mental health responders would be housed in the clinics.
“We think that we should definitely be thinking about public safety in a holistic way that is public health-oriented. Cops are not public health, cops are not equipped to deal with any of the issues that we’re trying to address with this model,” said Rodriguez Sanchez.
The order was inspired by programs in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, where responders handle roughly 20 percent of all 911 calls made to those police departments.
A similar (but slimmed down) proposal by Lightfoot would allocate $16.5 million from the police budget to community-based violence reduction efforts including $1.3 million for a co-responder model where police and mental health professionals would respond to mental health crises.
It’s been criticized by Rodriguez Sanchez for not going far enough to fund public clinics and for continuing to include police in mental health crisis calls.
“I still cannot understand why the mayor believes that there always should be an armed officer present where we’re attending to [a mental health] crisis in our city,” she said.
The closing of Homan Square
On November 16, nine members of the City Council’s progressive caucus introduced an ordinance calling for the complete removal of police officers from the controversial CPD detention site at South Homan and West Fillmore. The proposal would divert money from that facility to fund “youth services, addiction services and rapid re-housing services” in North Lawndale.
In 2016, community organizers with the #LetUsBreathe Collective created the Freedom Square encampment in an empty lot directly across the street from the Homan Square facility. For six weeks, organizers created a safe space for community members to gather and learn about alleged torture and incognito detention at the site. This came after a 2015 investigation by The Guardian which detailed these allegations, including beating and shackling detainees as well as denying attorneys access to their clients.
Organizers with the #LetUsBreathe Collective, BYP100, and Black Lives Matter Chicago draw a direct connection from the secretive Homan Square facility to the city’s history of police torture. Also in 2015, Chicago passed the nation’s first reparations package for 57 torture survivors from the 70s and 80s, after a team of officers led by former CPD commander Jon Burge tortured over 125 individuals into confessing crimes many did not commit.
“In the last few weeks, the ordinance was drafted up which is connected to the budget process,” said Damon Williams, cofounder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective and community and cultural organizer at the Chicago Torture Justice Center. He hopes the budget framing will overcome hurdles faced by previous attempts to close the site: namely, the secrecy around what happens there. “A big part of [the Homan Square site] was so obfuscated. When there’s so limited transparency, it’s actually very difficult to know what’s in there, who’s operating it,” said Williams.
The ordinance brings this years-long battle into the conversation around the relatively new Defund CPD movement. Police abolition, after all, is not a new idea in Chicago. Even after this ordinance, along with Treatment Not Trauma, was relegated to the City Council Rules Committee (where they often languish, untouched), supporters of the Defund Police movement say they’ll continue to fight.
“We have this Defund [CPD] moment and we have this [year’s] uprising, where we’re able to then build out on politics that have been kindling or been developing now, for four or five years,” said Williams. v
This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.