The same day that City Council voted to approve the new $95 million police academy plan in West Garfield Park, mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot spoke at the University of Chicago about the need to build an even more expensive and expansive police academy. Lightfoot clarified that she does not support the current proposal “as is,” but that “we absolutely need a new training facility,” and “to do it right it would cost far more than” $95 million. She cited the New York Police Department’s new $750 million training center as an example. To Lightfoot, a police training center done right should involve more community engagement and “academic development.” Notably, she said the city should consider turning some of the thirty-eight remaining vacant schools of the fifty closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel into police training facilities.
During the Chicago Public Safety Forum last week, hosted by the UofC’s Crime Lab, Harris School of Public Policy, and Institute of Politics, mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lightfoot were featured separately for forty-five-minute question-and-answer sessions about solutions to gun violence. For the first time in this election, there is a clear juxtaposition between the futures Preckwinkle and Lightfoot want to deliver, and how they envision a safe Chicago.
Preckwinkle spent more time than Lightfoot talking about a variety of solutions to crime, including investing in free meals, after-school programming during the peak hours for crime (4pm–7pm) and turning more vacant properties over to a public land bank. Lightfoot focused all her answers on the criminal justice system.
Progressive voters who care about criminal justice reform should not vote for Lori Lightfoot. The stark image of shuttered schools turning into police training centers—instead of community centers, health facilities, literally anything else—should convince anyone that Lightfoot does not share a progressive vision for Chicago’s future. She offered a few other specific proposals that make clear, without question, her vision would increase incarceration and expand private, non-transparent partnerships within the Chicago Police Department.
In addition to her schools-as-police-academies idea, Lightfoot proposed that we reduce gun violence by increasing federal prosecution for gun crimes. “We don’t have enough prosecutions. They’re more afraid of federal prosecutions.” Increasing federal gun prosecutions has been a goal of the Trump administration, one that has resulted in nonviolent Black defendants being targeted. Lightfoot—let alone Trump—has yet to acknowledge how this proposal would inflate our federal prison population, or whom “they” is referring to. I imagine that she’s referring to young Black men. We should question her approach and her experience as a federal prosecutor in light of the lived experiences of Black teenagers and young adults who have faced gun charges. We might realize that for many young people who are caught in a cycle of court, prison, and death: the threat of federal prosecutions will not stop gun violence.
Her past shows that she will not be responsive to calls for progressive reform and police accountability. Lightfoot was the head of the Office of Professional Standards, which was the city’s first attempt at a police oversight agency (a precursor to the Independent Police Review Authority, which begat the current Civilian Office of Police Accountability). Between 2002 and 2004, only 1.8% of complaints made by civilians against officers were sustained, according to data from the Citizens Police Data Project. Officers who used excessive force had a four in 1,000 chance of facing serious discipline.
Lightfoot opened her remarks by saying that on “on day one” she would call Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to support him on his “mission to serve and protect” and reduce gun violence. She does not want to get rid of Johnson: “I don’t want to make him a lame duck and pander to the crowds that want him gone.” The “crowds” presumably refer to organizers and readers of papers like the Weekly, which recently printed an investigation into Johnson’s undeniable history of tolerating and approving of misconduct in partnership with the Intercept. I am skeptical, then, of Lightfoot’s potential effectiveness in future negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police on behalf of the public, or in using the opportunity of a Consent Decree to change priorities of the CPD.
There was not much pushback against Lightfoot’s proposals within the UofC setting. Of course, Lightfoot’s vision would benefit the UofC enormously; she called for more investment in Strategic Decision Support Centers—policing centers where analysts from the UofC advise police commanders on where to deploy officers—saying the Crime Lab sponsored initiative “does more than our detectives can do alone.” Her vision, like the Crime Lab’s, focuses on reducing gun violence through more targeted policing. Progressive organizers believe that we will not police our way out of gun violence.
To Lightfoot’s credit, she spoke first, right after the Crime Lab director Jens Ludwig introduced the subsequent conversations about “public safety” at large with a narrow framing about gun violence. Ludwig presented a slideshow that proposed how pervasive gun violence is driving Chicago’s depopulation. What Ludwig presented was not questioned by the interviewers or candidates, and possibly limited the imaginative potential of a conversation about various factors in public safety. Keeping with the traditions of UofC inquiry, the discussion and audience was largely removed from neighboring South Side neighborhoods; the neighborhoods that struggle with public safety were the subject in question.
Preckwinkle and Lightfoot showed themselves, for the first time in this campaign, in sharply different approaches to public safety. Until this event, they have campaigned on similarly progressive rhetoric and proposals around public safety, and their differences have been hard to distinguish for many in the city. On a national level, the runoff election between two Black women has been seen as a progressive win, a rebuke of the Emanuel and Daley eras of heavy policing and school closures. And, it is. We will have a Black woman mayor, and that is an incredible, historical first for Chicago. That fact is not enough to deliver us to a progressive future.
Preckwinkle will not radically transform the city; she said last Wednesday that she would add more community police, more training, and more Black and brown detectives. She did, however, focus more on addressing the root causes of violence, and recalled her experience as a teacher who attended students’ funerals. In her closing statement, she said, “We allow kids who have the least privilege to have the least invested in them. We have challenges and the root is our willingness to invest in children.” She will approach our city’s most painful issues with consideration and careful compassion, and she has shown to be responsive to organizing pressure. She is the mayor that progressives should want to organize under.
Lightfoot has benefitted from a sharper communications team that has cast her as an outsider, with more inspirational soundbites, and the public believes it. In truth, Lightfoot has never been held accountable to a public that elected her; all her positions in government were appointed by Emanuel or Daley—and before that she was a federal prosecutor, then a corporate lawyer. Lightfoot has long protected and served policing and prison institutions, and has now made clear that she continues to do so.
Maira Khwaja researches policing and safety at the Invisible Institute and is a contributor to the Weekly. Her political opinions do not reflect the views of the Invisible Institute or the Weekly.