It was only a matter of months ago that candidate Lori Lightfoot, in her bid to become Chicago's first Black woman mayor, offered a long sought assurance to voters of color across the city; if elected, Lightfoot vowed to dismantle Chicago’s toxic system of racialized law enforcement and promote public safety by addressing the root causes of gun violence through equitable neighborhood investment.
So it came as a rude awakening when, early this week, in a press briefing on gun violence, Mayor Lightfoot adopted a new and decidedly regressive position on community safety. Flanked by Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, the mayor drew an unsubstantiated connection between progressive criminal justice reform and an increase in neighborhood shootings. Lightfoot also called for consideration of more stringent pretrial detention policies at the county level and pointed to enhanced law enforcement and incarceration practices as a viable solution to Chicago’s growing public health crisis.
The mayor’s newly embraced, tough on crime rhetoric, while doubtlessly alarming to communities impacted by racially targeted policing and mass incarceration, is not unfamiliar to Chicagoans. In her recent statements on law enforcement, local constituents could discern echoes of Lightfoot’s predecessor and bygone target of condemnation, former mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Indeed, Lightfoot is only the latest in a long succession of Chicago mayors to adopt a law and order narrative as a means of deflecting accountability for systemic neighborhood inequities away from the failures of city government. Despite the enduring political potency of tough-on-crime posturing, draconian law enforcement tactics have failed in their purported intent to deter crime, and serve to aggravate the symptoms of racialized disinvestment that underpin disparities in neighborhood safety.
Since 2000, the Illinois legislature raised penalties for unlawful gun possession six times, and local police and prosecutors targeted their enforcement efforts on communities of color with laser precision. Aggressive policing and sentencing strategies did not result in a decrease in local gun crime. Rather, the statewide penalty enhancements propelled a threefold increase in the number of inmates incarcerated for weapons charges. The collateral impacts on economic stability in majority-Black neighborhoods have further exacerbated racialized inequality and eroded public safety.
By contrast, progressive reform of the Cook County bail system has proved to be effective in strengthening local communities. In 2017, county courts adopted policies that limit judges’ authority to subject defendants to pretrial detention based on an inability to pay a money bond. As a result, tens of thousands of Chicagoans were permitted to return to their communities while awaiting a court date, which in turn, allowed individuals to maintain employment, housing and parental rights, and improve their sentencing outcomes. According to a report released by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, only 0.6% of the defendants released pretrial were later charged with a violent offense.
In order to foster communities that are safe and free for all Chicagoans, it is imperative that state and local governments embrace fair, humane and strategic methods of law enforcement, including arrest diversion, restorative justice, pretrial freedom and sentencing reform. Chicago must also undertake dramatic steps to equitably invest in public programs - such as affordable housing, schools, mental health services and safety net initiatives - to counter the structural inequities that foment neighborhood crime.