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Chicago’s new mayor to use vacant police salaries to fund mental health outreach teams

On police staffing, Brandon Johnson has vowed to promote current officers to increase the number of detectives by 200


Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on stage after winning his mayoral runoff against Paul Vallas on April 4, 2023.

Armando L. Sanchez

By Alice Yin and Gregory Pratt
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Brandon Johnson — the first Chicagoan to unseat an incumbent mayor in 40 years — will inherit a towering to-do list when he assumes leadership of a city plagued by dissatisfaction with its government as well as a decades-in-the-making crisis of gun violence and looming fiscal cliffs.

But come May, the 47-year-old Cook County commissioner will bring with him an equally voluminous stack of proposals, one he has asserted rejects the “politics of old” that landed the nation’s third-largest city in its current plight and instead “invests in people.” To underscore the potential of his ambitions, Johnson often repeated the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. following his 1960s stay in Chicago.

“If we can figure it out in Chicago, we can do it anywhere in the world,” Johnson has paraphrased.

Johnson defeated runoff opponent Paul Vallas in Tuesday night’s election after a remarkable ascent from a little-known county commissioner jostling for momentum in a nine-candidate field to ousting an incumbent for the second slot in the final round. The intense race pitted the more conservative Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, against one of the most progressive mayoral candidates the city has seen in Johnson.

While the final tally between the contrasting candidates was expected to be close, the early elimination of Mayor Lori Lightfoot in February’s first round signaled a widespread desire for change.

[PREVIOUS: Chicago mayor ousted, blamed for divisiveness and increased crime]

Number one on the next mayor’s agenda of problems to crack? Crime, a perpetual Chicago dilemma that has flared in urgency over the past three years.

As a deadly pandemic and civil unrest over the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd halted Chicago in its tracks in 2020, shootings intensified in the most violent neighborhoods and advanced elsewhere too, casting a pall stretching from downtown to long-disinvested blocks on the South and West sides.

It was that ubiquitous fear that perhaps united Chicago to seal Lightfoot’s fate as the first incumbent to lose reelection since Jane Byrne lost to Harold Washington in 1983, even though the recent crime wave was one observed across the nation.

Chicago’s sheer volume of shootings remains exceptional, however.

Last year, Chicago recorded about 700 homicides — a modest improvement from the historic 2021 spike that saw the city’s worst bloodshed since the mid-1990s, but a staggering toll nonetheless. It still outpaces 2019 levels by nearly 40% as well as the annual totals from Chicago’s more-populous peers, New York and Los Angeles.

So far this year, homicides are slightly down compared to the same period in 2022, but robberies have spiked by more than one-third and batteries are up nearly 20%.

Meanwhile, the city’s financial health remains on treacherous footing.

Under Lightfoot, City Hall has made real strides in shoring up city finances, but the mayor’s budget office and outside experts project a deficit between $500 million and $600 million heading into 2024. And Johnson almost certainly won’t have a cushion of federal funds to rely on.

Chicago’s pension funds — among the most depleted in the country — took a critical tumble during 2022′s downturn in stock market fortunes. The local economy’s future is uncertain as tourism, CTA ridership and office and retail occupancy have not climbed back to 2019 levels.

Most importantly, Johnson has said again and again he will not raise residents’ property taxes, a perhaps expedient campaign move during a time of hardship for homeowners but one he could regret come budget season.

If the prospect of these overlapping turmoils deterred Johnson ahead of the election, the candidate did not show it. Asked at a March debate to name “something tangible” he would accomplish within his first 100 days in office, Johnson opened with a sky-high goal: double youth employment.

He also vowed to pass Treatment Not Trauma, a languishing City Council ordinance that would repurpose vacant police salaries to send social workers and other specialists to nonviolent mental health calls. Lastly, Johnson said he would enact “Bring Chicago Home,” a plan to raise the real estate transfer tax on properties above $1 million to fund homelessness services. That would require a referendum at the next election or a change in state law, however.

A paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union over the past decade, Johnson’s Tuesday night victory was as much his as that of the influential labor organization, which has long clamored for changes that go far beyond CPS’ scope. But the ties also dogged him on the campaign trail as Vallas sought to warn that Johnson will be beholden to the teachers union.

How Johnson governs a city with respect to its most intractable issues will remain to be seen. He has watered down his most critical stances on policing since entering the mayor’s race as pressure mounted during the runoff to address his past support for the “defund the police” movement.

Seeking to blunt criticism over his stance on law enforcement, Johnson continued to distance himself from his prior comments, eventually saying bluntly that he would not decrease the department budget by “one penny.”

Vallas, meanwhile, had focused his campaign squarely on crime, vowing to bring more beat officers to the streets and complaining that rules on police conduct were “handcuffing” law enforcement.

As mayor, he will preside over a Chicago police force with 1,500 vacancies and be tasked with implementing the ongoing federal consent decree that is supposed to overhaul department policies and practices as well as, in a few years, execute a new police contract.

He also will appoint the next permanent Chicago police superintendent, after David Brown packed his bags and returned to Dallas shortly following Lightfoot’s loss.

[PREVIOUS: Chicago PD leadership departures makes superintendent the ‘hardest position to fill’]

On police staffing, Johnson has vowed to promote current officers to increase the number of detectives by 200 and eliminate $150 million in what he described as wasteful spending and funnel that money toward more effective resources within the police department. He had broken from other mayoral candidates by not committing to filling ongoing officer vacancies but appeared to walk that back during the final days of campaigning.

Lastly, Johnson has said he would end the use of ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection technology that officers use to respond to shootings quicker but that critics claim is faulty and leads to dangerous police interactions.

[PREVIOUS: Report: Chicago watchdog questions utility of ShotSpotter]

But above all, Johnson’s pitch to reduce crime begins outside the purview of the Chicago Police Department and with community investments.

To pay for those and more, he proposed a bundle of tax hikes and new levies. They include implementing a head tax on Chicago employers, a levy on financial transactions and a jet fuel tax as well as raising the levies on hotels and real estate sales of properties above $1 million. Some of these would require a change of state law.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign pledge to not raise property taxes has raised eyebrows, as roughly $1.4 billion of the city’s 2023 property tax levy was used for pension debts, and halting those hikes would force the next mayor to find money elsewhere to pay for their programs.

The subject of education’s future in Chicago is more nebulous, though just as consequential. Johnson, who cut his teeth in politics thanks to the teachers union, will surely attempt to shake up a system that he has decried as inequitable.

Among the tasks awaiting Johnson are contract negotiations with the teachers union, whose current deal expires in 2024; coping with enrollment loss as a moratorium on school closings ends; and preparing for the elected school board transition.

On the last point, Johnson will preside over the school district’s last years of mayoral control — an era that ironically began with Vallas at the helm of CPS — following the passage of a new law setting the stage for a 21-member elected school board by 2027, over Lightfoot’s objections.

Johnson has also pledged to fight to increase state funding to CPS and to shift from an enrollment-based to a needs-based model for determining how much each school gets. He called for a host of investments such as fully staffed bilingual and special education programs and to house the district’s nearly 4,000 homeless students, but critics have said those goals are financially unrealistic for the cash-strapped district.

Though he has waffled when it comes to specific solutions for the toughest problems facing the schools district — including how he would make selective enrollment applications fairer or relieve reliance on standardized testing — one thing is certain: Johnson will no longer be a member of the CTU come Inauguration Day, he has promised.

But when asked last week to define the first issue he’d fix in office, Johnson did not speak of crime, taxes, education — or any issue that can be solved with policy alone.

“The first thing that I would fix: I want to restore confidence in government and the office of the mayor,” Johnson said. “I want to fix that relationship.”

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