Johnson safety plan slow out of the gate, but mayor vows ‘root causes’ approach will work

Inside the Garfield Park field house’s cavernous basement, Mayor Brandon Johnson and other city officials spoke bullishly about their mission to tackle Chicago’s crime.

Titled the “People’s Plan for Community Safety,” the strategy outlined by the progressive mayor last Wednesday evening at a community working group event encompassed his signature mantra of “investing in people” rather than relying on traditional law enforcement.

“It is critical that we engage with the victims as well as the perpetrators of violence to reach true safety,” Johnson said. “As we prove the effectiveness of our plan, we will grow this work in phases and continue to roll out so that every community in Chicago is safe.”

A year after he took office, however, Johnson’s plan is still in its early stages, and crime remains a stubborn scourge across the city. And his move away from investing more in policing to address the problem has further enflamed opponents who have long distrusted his approach.

In the West Side field house, the reality of Chicago’s violent streets was reflected in participants’ grim tone as they set about brainstorming how to make the mayor’s plans reality.

Stephen Robinson, executive director of Northwest Austin Council and a former professor at Daley College, recalled a drug dealer from nearby Hamlin Avenue who enrolled in one of his classes after getting released from federal prison. That bright young man “was getting an A in my class by midterm,” Robinson said, but then disappeared. Robinson thinks he went back behind bars.

The People’s Plan is aimed at reaching men just like Robinson’s former student — “adults of high promise,” as Johnson’s office likes to say. Its first step was picking 10 blocks in four neighborhoods on the South and West sides to flood with resources, everything from cleaning up vacant lots to partnering with anti-violence organizations to support troubled youth.

“The people that are most severely impacted by the cycle of harm and the places that have been historically disinvested in and are well overdue for revitalization,” Johnson said at a March event unveiling the blocks that would get the extra attention.

In total, the mayor’s 2024 budget allocates $100 million toward anti-violence programs, a strategy his predecessor Lori Lightfoot first latched onto and that Johnson seeks to multiply.

However, while Johnson blames violence on “the lack of job opportunities, disengagement … from school or access to alternate pathways to careers, disengagement from housing,” the scarcity of law enforcement solutions in the People’s Plan has angered critics like Ald. Anthony Napolitano, a former Chicago police officer who represents the Far Northwest Side 41st Ward where many cops reside.

“The goal for this administration and current City Council leadership is to find more than one way to defund the police. Their goal is to take more of the police budget and reallocate it to social workers and nonprofits,” Napolitano told the Tribune about Johnson’s People’s Plan. “Their goal is to fund more nonprofits, who in the end will help them come election time.”

But Garien Gatewood, Johnson’s deputy mayor of community safety, said the administration is holding those nonprofits accountable for producing results. He said his team is in the midst of conducting an assessment of all community anti-violence organizations funded by the city and how effective they are, though he did not elaborate on the standards for success.

“We can do both/and. We can both address those root causes by providing support for folks, and also hold people accountable,” Gatewood said in a phone interview. “We’ve consistently asked our police departments to do too much. … There has not been an actual plan until now to help alleviate some of those pressures from law enforcement. So I think a big piece of that is that shared accountability.”

The four neighborhoods and 10 city blocks that will see the first wave of investments under the People’s Plan are:

  • Englewood: 59th to 63rd streets between Racine and Morgan, Garfield Boulevard to 59th between Racine and Morgan;

  • West Garfield Park: Madison to Lexington between Kenton and Kolmar, Adams to the Eisenhower between Keeler and Pulaski, Jackson to Harrison between Pulaski and Hamlin;

  • Austin: Madison to Adams between Laramie and Lavergne, West End to Madison between Laramie and Lavergne; and

  • Little Village: 26th to 27th between Kildare and Pulaski, 27th to 28th between Kildare and Pulaski.

Johnson’s team chose the locations based on several metrics: number of shootings, past school closures, unemployment rates, health determinants and other signs of disinvestment. In each of those four neighborhoods, a community organization will receive $250,000 to implement Johnson’s goal of targeting “people-based” and “place-based” approaches to revitalization.

Gregory Matthews, a community engagement manager with the Chicago Community Safety Coordination Center, stood with Johnson last month when he unveiled the areas to receive investment.

As someone tasked with informing the administration on the needs of the Garfield Park community, Matthews said revitalization begins with speaking frankly to youth involved in gang or drug activity about a critical subject: money, or how they can “change the bag.” Meeting them with legitimate alternatives is a crucial pillar of the People’s Plan, he said.

“These are not bad people. They’re kids in a weird situation because they’ve been raised to glorify something that 90% of society thinks is atrocious,” Matthews said. “So how do you get their culture to change? Well, the one thing that we have in common with the conversation is money.”

While the Johnson administration is eager to invest in youth jobs and more, many of the most ambitious initiatives under the People’s Plan have yet to debut, such as an expanded guaranteed basic income program or a citywide certification program to professionalize and educate victim advocates. The mayor’s commitment to reopen the shuttered mental health clinics, starting with two sites this year, also remains in its planning stages; a report from a task force is expected in May.

The Peace Book — an activist-backed proposal to prop up a structure of youth “peacekeepers” to mediate conflicts in violent neighborhoods — remains pending in City Council but will pilot 100 such roles this year as part of the city’s One Summer Chicago youth jobs program, which Johnson has expanded this year by 4,000 jobs, to a total of 28,000. The administration has also identified 275 unkempt vacant lots in the four neighborhoods chosen under the People’s Plan and cleaned up 49 of them as of this month.

The mayor has argued he is moving expediently to implement his vision, and that his focus on engaging and investing in community groups is unprecedented.

“I know that there’s an urgent moment now. But real talk, y’all, we were not having these conversations four years ago,” Johnson said in March when asked about the pace. “So like, I feel the energy of wanting more, because I’m with it. … But I also see the work that is following it. And it’s following it, I believe, relatively quickly considering it’s been less than a year.”

Johnson took office last May as the city was winding down from a historic crime spike in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest over the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. In 2021, Chicago recorded 800 homicides, the highest since the mid-1990s.

Since then, Chicago has seen modest improvements, ending last year with homicides down 13% from 2022. But robberies increased 23%, while car thefts spiked 37%, and overall crimes remained at a far higher level than pre-2020 levels.

So far in 2024, homicides are down 9% compared to this point in time last year, while robbery statistics have not significantly shifted and motor vehicle thefts are down 25%.

Southeast Side Ald. Peter Chico, on leave from his job as a Chicago police officer while he represents the 10th Ward in the City Council, is among those who don’t think the pace is the problem, but rather the mayor’s neglect of more traditional answers to crime.

Chico agrees with Johnson that “we can’t arrest our way out of the issues we have.” But until the surfeit of complaints from his ward over lagging 911 police response times improves, he said, the law enforcement component must not be neglected.

“We can do both simultaneously: addressing the root causes of crime and still dealing with the response times on the street level policing. We just have to do a better job of getting to these calls in a more timely manner,” Chico said, citing constituent complaints about 911 response times. “I don’t think we’re there. I think it’s gonna be a long time before we ever get there. That’s why we have to invest and look at policing on the street.”

Johnson’s previous interim CPD Superintendent Fred Waller, now a deputy director in the department, said at last week’s People’s Plan event that community organizations should be seen as first responders, too.

He said beginning last year, the department piloted a shooting notification partnership between police districts and nonprofit antiviolence groups in districts 3, 4 and 15. Around the end of last year, that expanded to districts 5, 9 and 10, and districts 11, 6 and 7 will be next.

“The connection between CVI (community violence intervention) and CPD at one time was tenuous,” Waller said. “People have always been skeptical. I’ve always been a person who I kind of say what I’m feeling. I’ve never been a person that’s gonna pour syrup over (expletive) and tell you it’s pancakes, right? … So CPD along with CVI, we’re keeping our hard hats on. We’ve got a long way to go. But the success has been seen as proven.”

Johnson’s continued use of Waller, a self-styled “old school” veteran of CPD, in a way reflects the mayor’s own evolution from once embracing the “defund the police” movement in 2020 to becoming City Hall’s chief executive, with control over the nation’s second-largest police department.

In other ways, the coalition Johnson has assembled harkens back to his original ethos of focusing on the root causes of crime. Matthews, the community engagement manager who stood with Johnson at his March news conference, told the Tribune he believes that the presence of police — “the most powerful gang in the city” — instills a lack of agency in Black youth, when what they need is opportunity.

“We all know that law enforcement doesn’t work. Law enforcement and more enforcement is like digging a hole in dirt,” Matthews said. “The more you dig, the more the dirt is going to fall back into the hole.”