Three years after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration created a Violence Prevention Planning Committee meant to hold the city accountable for reducing violence, records show that the group is now defunct after just two meetings.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the mayor’s office said there are no agendas or attendance records available for the group, which last met in June 2021; a city website hasn’t been updated since that meeting. The Trace contacted more than two dozen participating organizations. Several were left in the dark about the committee’s apparent end. Others were confused about being included on the list of participating organizations when their members had never attended a meeting. The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries about the status of the committee and its work.
Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that the committee was no longer active. “To this day I think that the Lightfoot administration’s strategy to deal with gun violence was a public relations strategy,” Williams said. “They didn’t have a strategy to deal with the structural problem of violence and gun violence.”
A local expert in violence prevention, Williams wasn’t invited to join the committee until June 2021. “I felt they had made up their minds of what they were willing to do to address the issue of violence — and getting the community involved in it was not a part of their plan,” he said.
Throughout Lightfoot’s tenure, the outgoing mayor’s office has been criticized for not fulfilling its promises to reduce gun violence, for its lack of transparency, and for leaving residents out of the decision-making process. Organizers see the apparent end of the Violence Prevention Planning Committee as yet another example of that lack of follow-through. Many have similar feelings on Lightfoot’s overall record on public safety: Her 2020 108-page violence reduction plan promised to include community members and representatives of policy and anti-violence organizations in its effort to tackle gun violence as a public health and equity issue.
Norman Kerr, who directed the city’s Office of Violence Reduction, said in a 2020 interview with The Trace that the city’s safety plan was informed by the committee’s nearly 60 members. The group was then set to meet every six months.
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The committee has only met twice since then; one of those meetings was held behind closed doors. After The Trace reported on the committee’s lack of transparency in 2021, the city’s list of participating organizations grew from nearly 60 to nearly 100, including government departments, and the city posted footage of the next meeting online. Conversations with a few groups also indicated that some of those listed may have been invited to join but didn’t get the opportunity to participate.
Williams said the meeting he attended in 2021 felt more like an informational presentation than a genuine attempt to solicit feedback. “Once I saw that presentation that they invited us to, I was pretty much convinced that this was just a way to appease folks or to say that they invited the community,” he said.
In video footage of that meeting, city officials gave updates on the progress the city had made on its planned initiatives, such as the rollout of the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement Program, and an interactive ranking of how members thought the city should prioritize programs and allocate resources.
At the end of that meeting, city leaders said they would meet again in December 2021 to plan for 2022. While organizers are unclear about why the committee meetings ended, they say they found other ways to continue the work, by meeting as subcommittees or other groups.
Some said the committee structure was so ineffective that its shuttering may be for the best. “Things like that (the committee) needed to be broken down,” said Aisha Oliver, founder of Root 2 Fruit Youth Foundation. “I remember joining one meeting, and I felt there were more people on the call who were heads of organizations versus people who actually work directly with residents and people who are affected by violence.”
She said meetings like the twice-monthly West Side-focused gatherings that the mayor’s Community Safety Coordination Center team convenes are more impactful because attendees can create a more precise strategy for specific communities. The setting also allows members to hear more directly from people directly affected by violence, such as youth.
Jorge Matos, senior director for READI, which connects men at the highest risk of experiencing violence with resources, said he attends a small quarterly intergovernmental meeting led by Cook County. Matos said his goal there is to define a collaborative approach to scaling community violence intervention across the city.
Lightfoot’s public safety plan included short- and long-term initiatives, such as expanding services to those most affected by gun violence and improving the trust between law enforcement and the community. Investigations by the Illinois Answers Project, however, found that the administration left violence reduction funding unspent, that there was high turnover among the people leading violence prevention efforts, and that, contrary to Lightfoot’s statements, nonfatal shootings and murders increased during her term. In 2018, before taking office, there were 2,875 murders and nonfatal shootings, but by the end of 2022, there were over 3,509.
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The problem with Lightfoot’s administration, Williams said, was that its safety plan was good on paper but lacked follow-through. “If you don’t include everybody in the process, I don’t care how good that plan is,” he said. “People are not going to embrace it because they feel excluded.”
Consistent leadership is important, said LaVonte Stewart, executive director for Lost Boyz Inc., which provides sports-based youth development in Chicago. He said that constant flux in the Lightfoot administration hindered some efforts to reduce violence.
“Sometimes new leaders come in and the work gets affected,” Matos said.
It’s important to not lose momentum, he said. “The infrastructure is built,” Matos said. “It just needs a leader to really believe in the work and to fund it the right way and to really sustain it.”
With Lightfoot’s administration coming to an end in May, violence prevention organizations are looking to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s office to avoid the same mistakes. Community leaders want Jonhson’s team to provide more transparency, consistency, and collaboration. Johnson’s team did not respond to questions about the committee or how he plans to work with violence prevention organizations when he takes office. During his campaign, Johnson promised to fund — and take direction from — groups already working on reducing violence.
“I’m hoping [Johnson will] be really grounded and far more accessible,” Stewart said. He added Johnson should “move more toward collective impact and having organizations working together, versus pitting organizations against each other to compete for these dollars to provide violence prevention services.” Stewart said in the past, some of the smaller violence prevention organizations felt left out of opportunities to access funding.
“A lot of money was put into violence prevention and youth development and all of these things over the past couple of years, and look what happened just last week,” Oliver said, referring to violence that erupted as large groups of teens gathered in downtown Chicago earlier in April. “I’ve been trying to tell you guys this for years, but you keep listening to people who don’t have connections to these kids.”