Chicagoans who voted Mayor Brandon Johnson into office in April expressed hopes that his community-driven approach to public safety would reduce the city’s gun violence. Now that he’s in office, supporters and critics are closely watching to see if Johnson follows through on his campaign promises to include everyone in the process of making Chicago safer.
“It’s important [that] no matter how excited we are, how hopeful we are, and how much we’ve entrusted a candidate, that we still need to be vigilant,” said Ricardo Gamboa, a Chicago activist who voted for Johnson and who co-hosts the Chicago podcast, Hoodoisie. “We’ve seen the way progressive promises can be hollow,” Gamboa added, referring to their view that former Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to fulfill her campaign promises.
Since stepping into office on May 15, Johnson has announced four key positions and a 44-person transition subcommittee to lead the charge around public safety specifically. The subcommittee includes academics, organizers, politicians, first responders, faith leaders, educators, business people, native Chicagoans, and organizers who were formerly incarcerated. The group has 13 people with experience in violence prevention or reduction, 25 people with experience organizing around social justice, public safety, or police reform, six business leaders, and four former first responders.
“It’s important to have a diverse group from different perspectives because there is no one solution to ending gun violence,” said the Reverend Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, executive director of Live Free Illinois and a member of the Council of Criminal Justice’s Violent Crime Working Group.
To lead his public safety efforts, Johnson named Garien Gatewood as deputy mayor of community safety; Alderperson Brian K. Hopkins as chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee; Alderperson Christopher Taliaferro as chair of the newly created Committee of Police and Fire; and Fred L. Waller as the interim Chicago Police Department superintendent.
Gatewood and Taliaferro have been applauded by supporters for their past work on public safety, but Hopkins and Waller’s previous remarks have raised concern that their public support of police who have faced misconduct allegations may lead to a continued reliance on law enforcement. Johnson’s team did not respond to questions from The Trace about these worries, but shared the following statement on Johnson’s behalf: “I’m proud of the public safety coalition we’ve brought together because creating safe communities will take all of us – police, City departments and agencies, business, philanthropy, community partners, and all the people of Chicago.”
Gamboa said including people across lines of difference signals that the Johnson administration wants to be collaborative, but noted that in the past, they’ve seen collaborators push ideas that hurt certain neighborhoods, like the 2021 attempt to move recycler General Iron to the Southeast Side.
Any collaborator on public safety, said Ja’Mal Green, a Chicago native and organizer who also ran for mayor, should have direct connections to the neighborhoods that are suffering the most. Despite there being several Chicagoans with long records of community organizing, he said he does not see any appointments that show those characteristics.
Violence prevention experts and organizers in Chicago have consistently called for long-term solutions that address the root causes of violence, like sustainable housing, job security, youth programming, and access to health care. But during this mayoral election, voters made it clear they also want short-term solutions to improve their safety immediately.
It would be a mistake to disregard those urgent concerns, said Thomas Abt, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction. He noted that during his time as the chair of the Violent Crime Working Group, a diverse group of leaders that produces anti-violence reports, the team identified 10 essential actions that cities can take to reduce community gun violence quickly. Some suggestions include policing in hot spots, using a trauma-informed approach, and investing in anti-violence workforce development.
“Violence is self-perpetuating,” Abt said. “Unless you can interrupt the violence in the short term, it is hard to stop the cycle of violence in the middle and long term.” He said violence reduction needs to balance empathy with accountability, adding that public safety and social justice can reinforce each other.
Veronica Arreola, one of Johnson’s public safety subcommittee members and the 24th District councilor for the City of Chicago Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, said the key question the group is seeking to answer is whether it’s possible “to create public safety that values everybody who lives in the community in a way that doesn’t put one’s community safety above the other?”
The group met three times, Arreola said, and will share a written report with the administration to guide their approach by mid-June. She said the Johnson administration has not yet decided whether the group will continue to advise the administration.
The public safety group, Arreola said, is trying to find middle ground. As a district councilor, she said it is her job to take what she hears from her community and share it with the city. “We need community engagement for the district councils to work and to hear from the community on what they like and don’t like about how public safety is acting,” Arreola said.
Green, who supported Paul Vallas during the runoff election, advises those who are being appointed to positions of leadership for public safety to get out and stay connected with the community.
“We need people who actually are trying to understand what’s really going on at the grassroot level, not just more office people,” he said. “That’s been going on too long, which is why none of the problems ever get solved, because you don’t have actual field people who understand the streets.”