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After violent year, Chicago mayor calls for more help from feds

Mayor Lori Lightfoot also asked judges to stop releasing suspects in violent crimes on electronic monitoring

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A Chicago police officer collects blood samples at a fatal shooting scene in the 900 block of East 54th Place in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Nov. 9, 2021, in Chicago

John J. Kim

By Gregory Pratt
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Under pressure to reduce violent crime, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered a speech on Monday aimed at reassuring the public that her administration takes the surge in shootings seriously and is working to make the city safer.

But the mayor but fell short of offering any fresh strategies, hitting a series of familiar themes in an address of about 40 minutes delivered at the Garfield Park Gold Dome Fieldhouse.

While saying the city must address “root causes” of crime, including poverty, Lightfoot called for United States Attorney General Merrick Garland to send additional agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to go after illegal guns and more prosecutors to bring additional criminal cases at the federal level.

She also called on Cook County judges to stop releasing people charged with violent crimes on electronic monitoring, reiterating a frequent complaint raised by City Hall and the Chicago Police Department that the court system is too lenient. Advocates for changes to the criminal justice system dispute that the rise in violent crime is tied to bond reforms and have criticized Lightfoot for finger pointing.

Lightfoot said the city would look to expand the use of license plate readers, which she said was key to solving the murder of University of Chicago graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng.

And the mayor also pledged to continue pushing a controversial ordinance targeting gang members for fines and forfeiture in civil court, which the ACLU and other advocates said could lead to civil rights abuses.

[RELATED: How data sharing between agencies can reduce crime]

Addressing residents directly, Lightfoot sought to reassure Chicagoans frustrated with crime that she cares.

“Keeping you safe is my priority — not one of, but the first and primary priority,” Lightfoot said. “I wake every morning with this as my first concern and I push myself and all involved to step up and do more and better because we cannot continue to endure the level of violence that we are now experiencing.”

The mayor has repeatedly had to confront the issue of rising violent crime throughout the year, acknowledging that residents are “scared” due to a spike in shootings and carjackings and calling public safety the city’s top issue.

But Lightfoot and police superintendent David Brown have struggled to get the situation under control.

Official Chicago police statistics show the number of shooting victims is up year-to-date through Sunday to 4,270, from 3,930 through the same date in 2020. Homicides are up to 783 from 749 last year. The homicide figures do not include killings that occurred in self-defense or in other circumstances not measured in Chicago police statistics.

Expressway shootings have also spiked, to 249 this year from less than 130 in 2020, according to State Police records. And carjackings are up through Sunday, to 1,781 this year from 1,352 in 2020, records show.

Behind the scenes, Lightfoot and Chicago aldermen have repeatedly expressed concerns about high crime, though they have sometimes clashed over how to best address the issue.

In September, downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly and Lightfoot exchanged a series of heated texts about crime after he reportedly sent a tweet calling police Superintendent Brown a “moron” who “won’t listen.”

“Brendan, shameful and unhelpful. How about pickup the phone instead falsely creating the appearance of doing someone at everyone else’s expense?” Lightfoot texted Reilly in response. “Really bush league.”

Reilly defended his use of the word, saying he’d lost confidence in the superintendent.

“He’s a fine cop, but I’m looking at ... my crime stats & can honestly say that, in my 26 years living downtown, I’ve never seen lawlessness to this degree,” Reilly said. “It’s sickening. So I’ll apologize for using the word ‘moron.’ And I am anything but ‘Bush League.’ I want you to be successful, Mayor & I support you. But (this) has to change ASAP. We are losing downtown.”

Lightfoot said she shares “the levels of concern” but the 18th police district on the Near North Side “has tons of resources so there is no excuse for what is happening.”

[RELATED: Interrogation techniques to snag carjackers]

“I will push back and say that it was not that long ago that River North was not a nice safe neighborhood and that is recent enough that I remember it,” Lightfoot added. “But Brendan, you know there are far more constructive ways to get stuff done. Pandering to the crowd is never the best answer, even when you are frustrated.”

The mayor has also faced pressure from high-ranking staff. Susan Lee, a top adviser to Lightfoot and former deputy mayor for public safety, resigned in August while raising concerns about the city’s ability to “keep moving the ball forward” on its violence prevention efforts and Police Department consent decree implementation.

A month after Lee resigned, she cowrote an article with Southwest Side Alderman Matt O’Shea in which they declared Chicago a “city in crisis.”

Days later, O’Shea sent an email to state officials about “the dangerous gun violence on the Chicago expressway system” and stalled plans to add license plate readers to help catch shooters.

“I have made a number of inquiries on the status of this project over the last several weeks. It has come to my attention that IDOT and CDOT are having difficulty settling on an installation plan of providing power to the system,” O’Shea wrote on the email, which included Lightfoot. “Now is not the time for bureaucratic finger pointing. This is an urgent matter of public safety that must immediately be resolved.”

The mayor wrote in response that “In the City of Chicago, when we work with our partners in other governments like the state, we have found that the best way to move things forward is to collaborate and approach these opportunities with good faith.

“Sending poison pen missives, especially with an audience, which you seem to favor, is not the best way to move things forward,” Lightfoot wrote. “Obviously, you have a method and history of dealing and you will carry on as you see fit, but we value our relationships with other governmental actors and nastygrams are not the best strategy. But of course carry on as you like.”

In her speech Monday, the mayor praised the police department’s homicide clearance rate, which she said is at 48%. She said her administration will try to raise that figure to 60% in 2022 “by increasing the resources devoted to homicide investigations, lowering caseloads, and continuing to build community trust,” though she did not specify how the department — which has struggled to recruit and retain officers — will achieve the goal.

Lightfoot also called for increased citizen cooperation with police, a long-standing challenge in Chicago where many residents fear retaliation if they work with cops.

“No gang member is this city should ever rest easy. People must also stop shielding them. We need to bring them to justice. As Father Mike (Pfleger) has said, our faith must overcome our fears,” Lightfoot said. “There are people in our city right now who know the identity of shooters who have killed or harmed. I beg you to come forward. We need you to break your silence.”

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