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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot [Ashlee Rezin Garcia/AP]

How We Fix This

Chicago’s Gun Violence Plan Looks Good on Paper, Prevention Leaders Say. Can the City Pull It Off?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's proposal prioritizes police reforms and expansions to social services. How officials will accomplish their goals is left unanswered.

Nearly a year and a half into her first term as mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot has finally laid out a plan to reduce violence in the city — which was a central promise of her campaign. Violence prevention leaders, researchers, and funders say having the plan on paper is a good first step, but told The Trace that they are concerned about Chicago’s ability to implement it. 

To reduce gun violence, they say, the city needs to provide consistent funding for anti-violence initiatives, continuity between political administrations, and the patience to see progress — which may take several years. The 108-page document, released in late September, arrived without a cost assessment, just as the city faces a massive budget deficit, and at the tail end of a violent year that has seen more than 600 homicides and 3,000 shootings amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Lightfoot is still resisting calls to “defund the police” by reallocating money from the Police Department’s nearly $1.8 billion budget to fund social services and community-based response efforts — even as she insists that the city is steering away from a law enforcement-only approach to reduce violence. 

Lightfoot’s plan frames violence as a public health and equity issue, and focuses heavily on shootings and domestic violence. “I understand that violence is a complex issue,” Lightfoot writes in the plan’s opening statement. “It has persisted in Chicago for many years because the underlying causes — systemic racism, disinvestment, poverty, failed policing, lack of social services — have gone unaddressed, and the use of policing as the primary solution has failed.”

Gillian Darlow leads the Polk Bros Foundation, which has helped fund some of the city’s major anti-violence projects. She says the next step is to get an understanding of what it will take to make the plan work financially. “That is what makes it an action plan rather than a list of really good things to do,” she said. 

The document focuses on five areas, including improving community wellness and reforming policing. The plan lists dozens of short- and long-term initiatives. They include expanding access to jobs and housing, additional police training, and streamlining city efforts to address violence through the end of Lightfoot’s term in 2023. Some of the initiatives cited have already been rolled out, including Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West Initiative to improve neighborhoods.

“In three years, we want to see some reductions, some significant reductions, for sure,” said Norman Kerr, who directs the city’s Office of Violence Reduction, which was launched last year. “We believe if we stick to this plan we will get that.” 

The plan is the first major effort to come out of the office. Kerr says it is informed by the work of a committee of community members and nearly 60 representatives of policy and anti-violence organizations. That committee will meet every six months, starting in December, to assess whether the city is on track with its initiatives. 

Following a historic spike in violence in 2016 that brought shootings and homicides to levels not seen since the ‘90s, the city began reimaging its anti-violence efforts. As a blueprint, leaders looked to Los Angeles, which had created a citywide initiative to professionalize anti-violence work through a 2007 violence reduction plan. Los Angeles now has about 200 homicides a year, a goal that Chicago aspires to. 

“L.A. is similar in a lot of ways. We feel like it was a good example because of how they engaged the community, how street outreach was a part of their strategy, how they had an understanding between street outreach and law enforcement,” Kerr said. “So very similar to what we’re seeing in Chicago.”

Fernando Rejón, who leads the Urban Peace Institute in L.A., says consistent funding and political commitments are key to ensuring any anti-violence plan is sustainable, even as mayoral administrations change. “When you have a new administration, a lot of times they want to start from scratch and put their brand on it,” he said. “It’s going to take more than three years. In L.A., we didn’t see a lot of progress until the five-year mark.” 

Lance Williams, an urban community studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University, said he was impressed that the Chicago plan reflects an understanding of the role despair and frustration plays in everyday violence. Still, he worries that parts of it are too vague. “I just kept asking myself repeatedly as I read the report: ‘Okay, how are you going to do this?,’” he said. “Even in a plan you should give specifics.”

One example of this vagueness is the plan’s emphasis on street outreach, which currently relies heavily on private dollars even as funders have made it clear for years that their support can’t last forever. The plan says that Lightfoot’s administration can only commit to sustaining current funding because of the budget squeeze. The city initially budgeted $7.5 million for outreach services this year. Although Lightfoot was able to provide additional funding through the CARES Act, it takes about $70 million to fund current outreach efforts. 

Lightfoot’s plan also identifies the Chicago Police Department as a major influence in reducing violence. The report acknowledges CPD’s role in damaging community trust, including through its low rate of solving violent crimes and shootings. A U.S. Department of Justice report published in 2017 found that CPD solved less than a third of the city’s homicides, half of the national average. (CPD is also more than a year and a half into a federally mandated consent decree to reform a litany of practices. A recent report found that CPD missed more than 70 percent of its compliance deadlines in its first year under the reform agreement.) 

Teny Gross, director of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, pointed out that, despite his organization’s commitment to tamping down violence in the city, “the biggest player in violence reduction is still CPD.” 

“If [city officials] veer from [the plan], it would be one of the complaints about Chicago around the country —  that it never stays long on its strategies,” he added. 

Researchers and violence prevention workers say it will likely be several years before Chicago sees a sizable reduction in violence. “Every time you have a bad year, it recruits new people to that cycle,” said Gross. 

Amid all the challenges the city government is facing, it is also searching for a new deputy mayor of public safety. Susan Lee, who helped craft both L.A.’s and Chicago’s violence reduction plans, left her role days after the new plan was published. But Kerr, the city’s director of violence reduction, remains hopeful. “People can get so impatient wanting to see results quickly. Sometimes, when they don’t see the results quickly, they pivot to something else,” he said. “With an issue like violence, we have to stay invested, we have to stay committed. We’re going to see spikes, we’re going to see reductions, we can’t get satisfied — this is an issue we have to invest in for the long-term.”