This story was originally published by Injustice Watch, a non-partisan, not-for-profit, multimedia journalism organization based in Chicago.
CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot has rejected demands to defund the Chicago Police Department, arguing neighborhoods want more police support.
But an analysis shows Chicago is spending more on policing per person than at any time in the last half-century despite a persistent drop in crime over the last two decades, while the vast majority of murders remain unsolved.
Chicago allocated about $750 million in today’s dollars to the police department in 1964 from the city’s general operating budget. About 3.5 million people lived in Chicago then, meaning the city funded the police at a rate of $215 or so per resident, adjusted for inflation.
This year, Chicago budgeted $1.6 billion for its police department, excluding money set aside for police misconduct lawsuits and police pensions. That means Chicago is planning to spend more than $600 per resident on policing in 2020, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of census figures and police budget appropriations compiled by data scientist Forest Gregg.
Chicago’s per capita spending on policing is more than double that in Miami-Dade County in Florida, which has a similar population, and higher than Los Angeles, which is home to 1 million more residents, according to an analysis of publicly available data.
Police records show violent crimes have steadily declined in Chicago after peaking in the 1990s. The rate at which police solve murders in the city has also cratered. Still, the police budget has consistently taken up about 40% of the city’s general operating budget.
For activists and city leaders calling on Lightfoot to cut the police budget, it’s clear that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“Right now, we’re paying the police to kill folks like me, that’s what’s happening,” said Ald. Jeanette B. Taylor (20th), one of six democratic socialists on the City Council. “We can’t get a nurse, a social worker, or a counselor in schools, but we can always afford more police? That’s not common sense.”
Taylor and the rest of the caucus penned an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times Monday, arguing that the bloated police budget prevents the city from effectively tackling the coronavirus pandemic, which has carved a $700 million hole in the city’s 2020 budget.
“Chicago needs enormous public investment to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and when we sit down to hash out a budget this year, we will be faced with a choice: We can cut policing, or we can slash basically everything else,” the caucus wrote.
Protests continued this week in Chicago and around the nation, spurred by outrage over the May killing of George Floyd, who died in Minnesota after an officer knelt on his neck, and the long list of Black people killed by police. Protestors have decried systemic racism and called for police accountability, and demanded that police be defunded or abolished so governments can spend more money on social services.
The mayor’s office did not respond to specific questions about Injustice Watch’s analysis of police per capita spending. But at a news conference Tuesday, Lightfoot said she disagrees that adequately funding social services and keeping the police budget intact are mutually exclusive.
“I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition,” she said. “The investments we’re committed to make in mental health, in affordable housing, in workforce development, we need to make those investments, period. And we committed to that.”
While funding for the Chicago Police Department has steadily increased over time, the number of violent crimes committed in the city has fallen dramatically since its peak in the early 1990s.
What’s also dropped since then is the rate at which Chicago cops solve murders.
In 1967, the police reported solving 90% of homicide cases. By 1997, the murder clearance rate was 57%. In 2017, the department reported clearing less than one in four homicide cases. An analysis of police records by NPR from October showed the murder clearance rate was even more abysmal when the victim was Black or Latinx.
Nationally, police departments around the country had a murder clearance rate of about 62% in 2017, according to the FBI.
Despite its failures to find and capture most murderers, the Chicago Police Department budget nearly doubled between 1967 and 2017, going from $867 million to $1.5 billion, adjusted for inflation.
This year’s police budget is the largest on record. Salaries, wages, and overtime pay together take up more than 80% of the funds. There are more than 13,000 sworn Chicago police officers today, the most since 2008.
Municipal finance expert Michael D. Belsky said the most obvious way to slash the police budget is to have fewer officers on the city’s payroll. That means layoffs, said Belsky, executive director of the Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
But there’s no way to lay off scores of officers without going through the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, a trade union with nearly 350,000 members nationwide.
“It’s very difficult to remove someone; sometimes you have to go to arbitration, sometimes you end up getting sued by the officer and have to settle,” he said. “It’s not that easy to just take out your budget ax and start cutting unionized employees of any sort.”
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 in Chicago did not respond to requests to comment.
In a statement, the Chicago Police Department said it supports investments in community-based organizations and city departments that provide youth programming, family services, drug rehabilitation treatment, and other services. But the department did not answer specific questions about cutting its budget.
Tamar Manasseh, founder and president of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, or MASK, an anti-violence community group on the South Side, said she’s in no rush to dismantle the police department. But she thinks the city should redirect policing dollars to grassroots efforts that stomp out crime at the root.
“I don’t know if there’s enough commitment from the community yet to police our own neighborhoods, but I know that we can get there. We don’t need as many police as we have now,” she said.
Manasseh’s group is headquartered at a vacant lot straddling the border between Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The group prioritizes keeping the peace in the neighborhood without getting law enforcement involved.
“In the six years I’ve been here, sitting in one of the most dangerous corners of the city, I’ve never called 9-1-1, and I have yet to be murdered, even though this is a ‘hot spot,’” she said.
Volunteers run MASK, but the group provides stipends to a handful of community residents that mediate disputes between other residents. The group also pays for a handful of young people to attend trade schools.
Manasseh said the city could learn from the group’s approach to reducing crime and violence in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
“We sent kids to a trade school and gave them a stipend, and guess what? Violence dropped,” she said. “We’re not asking the city to do anything that we haven’t experimented with — we know it works, and all you have to do is pay people to police their own communities and guess what? Everything will change.”
“You don’t want to do it too quickly, because when all hell breaks loose, the community will beg for the police to come back,” Manasseh said, “but if this is done the right way, it’s revolutionary.”
Matthew Wilbourn is a youth organizer with the anti-violence group GoodKids MadCity and #NoCopAcademy, a coalition opposed to the construction of a $95 million police and fire training facility on the West Side. He said calls to defund the police force city leaders to reimagine what public safety could look like.
“I think people are very scared of that buzzword of ‘defunding’ the police because it sounds like you’re taking away, but it’s all about redistributing that money into something else,” he said.
“The mental health problem in Chicago is frightening, and it has to do with shootings and misunderstanding between people and the police because they’re not equipped to handle this.”
Wilbourn’s comments echo statements Chicago police Supt. David Brown made four years ago when he led the Dallas Police Department. In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of five officers and injured nine others, Brown contended, “we’re asking cops to do too much in this country.”
“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” he said. “Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to cops.”
“I’ll just ask other parts of our democracy — including the free press — to help us, to help us and not put that burden all on law enforcement to resolve.”
Contributing reporting by Emily Hoerner and Adeshina Emmanuel