Chicago mayor proposes $80M cut from police budget, but is that defunding the police?

Illustration: David Alvarado (@tuffasaurus)

This story was reported and published in collaboration with City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab.

Facing a $1.2 billion pandemic-induced budget shortfall, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last week the city must make “hard choices,” including property tax hikes and the elimination of 1,900 vacant city jobs.

But as the city council considers the mayor’s budget proposal over the next several weeks, the mayor’s critics argue she hasn’t done enough to cut the budget of the Chicago Police Department.

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The mayor’s proposed budget includes an $80 million reduction in tax dollars going to CPD, but only about $34 million will come from cuts in vacant positions, according to figures provided by the Mayor’s office to City Bureau and Injustice Watch. The rest will either be offset by grant funding or will be reallocated to the city’s Office of Public Safety Administration to fund clerical jobs once held by cops.

“If you really want to reimagine policing and move towards alternatives for policing, you have to do a lot more than just eliminate some vacant positions,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

Lightfoot has been clear that she does not support defunding the police, a demand from activists nationwide that gained prominence this summer. Advocates of defunding call for wholesale reallocation of police resources to community services like housing, counseling, health care, jobs and schools.

Read more: Five Ways for Chicago Residents to Participate in the 2021 City Budget

But her budget, if passed, would bring an end to four consecutive years of raising the police budget.

Budget hearings began Monday and are expected to be contentious. Members of the public must sign up in advance to give comment and will be allotted two minutes. Although the mayor’s budget is usually passed by Thanksgiving, this year could be different as the pandemic and its economic fallout, along with this summer’s protests against police violence, have weakened the second-year mayor’s bargaining position.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), who along with Ramirez-Rosa is part of the council’s six-member Socialist Caucus, said Monday, “I can tell you that at this moment I can’t support the budget as is.”

Unequal burdens

Lightfoot’s proposed cuts to the Chicago Police Department are part of an effort to make up a $1.2 billion projected deficit—65% of it is due to the pandemic, officials said.

To make up the difference, Lightfoot proposes eliminating 1,900 current vacancies across all city departments. Lightfoot also proposes laying off 500 city workers in March barring new federal aid, a $94 million property tax hike, tapping into the city’s reserves for $30 million and refinancing $500 million in city debt.

In a speech last Wednesday to the City Council, Lightfoot said every city department would need to make sacrifices so the city can dig itself out of its massive financial hole.

But other departments are facing much steeper cuts than the CPD. Overall, the city’s corporate fund (its general operating budget which funds basic city operations) is projected to shrink by 9% in 2021, but CPD’s allocation from the corporate fund will only drop by about 5%.

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For activists and city leaders calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to cut the police budget, it’s clear that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Critics say Lightfoot’s budget ignores the city’s own survey of more than 38,000 residents in which 90% of respondents who wanted additional money spent on city services said it should be reallocated from other parts of the budget (rather than increasing tax revenue). Of those, 87% said that money should come from police officers.

“She looked for feedback. She received the feedback. She did not like the feedback,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “And she said, ‘Yeah, but we’re not doing that … we have to fund both. We have to fund the public services and we have to fund police,’ even though we have been funding police at a much higher rate.”

Still, choosing not to fill hundreds of vacancies at the CPD marks an end to plans to grow the police force set forth by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and taken up by Lightfoot.

Four years ago, as the city suffered from a historic spike in gun violence, Emanuel set out to hire nearly 1,000 extra police officers before the end of 2018. By the time Lightfoot came into office in May 2019, the number of sworn police officers on Chicago’s payroll had ballooned to 13,300, the main reason why this year’s police budget topped $1.6 billion.

But by the start of this month, the number of active sworn officers had dropped to 12,800, according to data published by the Inspector General. The drop is fueled by an outsized number of officers who have retired this year and the pandemic preventing the police academy from training its usual number of prospects. By not filling the 538 vacancies for sworn officers next year, Lightfoot’s budget could bring the force’s numbers even lower, but Chicago will likely still have more officers per capita than Houston, Los Angeles or New York.

“By not filling those vacancies, the city is saving money by not spending it on those officers,” said Wesley Skogan, a Northwestern university criminologist and expert on the Chicago Police Department. “It’s defunding by attrition.”

Another, more gradual way to defund police would be to simply slow down the hiring of new recruits, Skogan said.

“If they didn’t hire a new class or two to fill up the vacancies left unfilled this year, they would essentially slow down the rate of hiring, and that’s a way to save a substantial amount of money,” he said.

An early battle in the war to come

Though the mayor said she’s against defunding the police, Lightfoot conceded in her Wednesday speech that, “police cannot be the first and only responders on every call for help from our residents. Her proposed budget allocates $16.5 million toward community-based violence reduction efforts, “building the infrastructure for alternative means of [emergency] response,” she said.

“But to be clear, this is hard work that must be tested and built over time,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor’s city council critics say the city can’t afford to wait to address the funding gaps that lead to police responding to mental health crises.

Last month Rodriguez Sanchez proposed an ordinance that would expand mental health services in the city, including new public mental health clinics and teams of medical and mental health providers who are available 24-hours a day to respond to mental health crises instead of police. She cited numbers showing that one in four people killed by police nationally have a severe mental illness.

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“We believe firmly that what we need to be doing right now is taking police out of the equation, we need to reduce the amount of contact that police have with the public,” Rodriguez Sanchez said.

She was critical of the mayor’s $1.3 million co-responder pilot program, which would pair police officers with mental health experts for some 911 calls. “I do not understand why the mayor believes that there always should be an armed officer present when we’re attending to crisis in our city,” she added.

The ordinance is the most concrete proposal thus far in city council to reallocate police funding to community services. Ordinance sponsors estimate that the program will cost $150 million, though that number is pending a department of finance review.

While the plan itself is more costly than that of the mayor, supporters say it is a long-term investment in public health and community services.

“We will still push for our model,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “It will probably take longer, but we’re here for the long haul.”

Whether it’s $1.3 million or $150 million, these numbers are puny compared to the demands of the #DefundCPD campaign. Organizers call for a 75% reduction in the police department’s budget—that’s $1.275 billion, or 23 times more than the reduction that Lighfoot proposed for 2021.

To Damon Williams, whose #LetUsBreathe Collective is part of the #DefundCPD campaign, the mayor’s abysmal cuts are not something to be celebrated.

“I don’t want to, in any way, frame it as her doing a good thing or something that she should be congratulated for,” he said.  “[But] this would not have been if it wasn’t for thousands of people participating throughout the city to transform the way our government works.”

That’s why police abolitionists in Chicago aren’t waiting for public officials to make the change, he said. This summer, the #DefundCPD campaign contributed to mutual aid initiatives to support community safety. Meanwhile, they trained over 1,500 people in community organizing tactics to continue to pressure politicians toward a complete dissolution of the police department.

Rev. Ciera Bates Chamberlain, executive director of LIVE FREE Chicago, a faith-based organization that works to end mass incarceration and police violence, said defunding the Chicago Police Department is about a lot more than just dollars and cents.

“Leaving positions unfilled is not a real strategic way of reimagining public safety,” she said. For her, defunding the police is about “investing money and resources into community-based strategies to improve public health which we know will not only save lives, but improve the overall conditions of Black and brown communities.”

Correction: A previous version of this story cited a steep drop in the Police Board budget as an example of city departments that are being cut more than the Chicago Police. In fact, the Police Board budget was increased last year to fund the search for a new police superintendent. The mayor’s proposed 2021 budget for the Police Board is actually larger than the agency’s 2019 budget.

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