Chicago Has A New Plan To Reduce Gun Violence, But COVID-19 Has Already Created Financial Challenges

Chicago Violence Police detectives
Chicago police detectives investigate the scene where a number of people were shot in a city park in Chicago in 2013. Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a plan Tuesday that takes a long-term approach to solving the city's entrenched gun violence. Paul Beaty / AP
Chicago Violence Police detectives
Chicago police detectives investigate the scene where a number of people were shot in a city park in Chicago in 2013. Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a plan Tuesday that takes a long-term approach to solving the city's entrenched gun violence. Paul Beaty / AP

Chicago Has A New Plan To Reduce Gun Violence, But COVID-19 Has Already Created Financial Challenges

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday released a 108-page plan to solve the city’s seemingly-intractable gun violence problem by improving the city’s response to mental health crises, providing more services to shooting victims, beautifying vacant land and finding jobs for those most likely to shoot or be shot in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The “comprehensive violence reduction plan” outlines dozens of short and long-term goals based on more than a year of conversations between city, state and county officials and street-level anti-violence workers. It leans heavily on community-based violence prevention groups that use “street outreach” to try to connect with the people doing the shooting in Chicago, but does not call for an immediate increase in public funding for those organizations.

The new plan is the latest attempt from city leadership to address a problem that has confronted Chicago for decades, with each new approach failing to make Chicago as safe as its big city counterparts in Los Angeles and New York.

“What stands out about this plan is that it is comprehensive. It really [leans] into the idea that violence is a public health crisis,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Susan Lee said. “This is probably the first time the city officially and formally has come out and accepted this public health framework … treating violence … with comprehensive approaches that isn’t just about law enforcement, but really focuses on community strengths.”

Lee spent years trying to combat gang violence in Los Angeles before coming to Chicago. In 2007, Lee co-authored a report titled “A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to LA’s Gang Violence Epidemic.” That plan is credited with major reductions in Los Angeles gun violence.

Lee said this new Chicago report “relies on the same public health framework” that made her L.A. initiative a success.

Lightfoot has repeatedly said she wants to make Chicago “the safest big city in America.” The report admits that will not happen during Lightfoot’s first term as mayor.

“Chicago would need to have fewer than 177 homicides per year to be on par with Los Angeles and fewer than 97 to be on par with New York City,” the report states. Already this year Chicago has recorded more than 560 homicides.

“While we do not anticipate reaching Los Angeles or New York City levels during Mayor Lightfoot’s first term, over the next three years, following this plan, we will build the infrastructure and establish the policies and practices that will achieve this reduction in the years to come.”

According to the report, more than 12,000 people have been shot in Chicago since the start of 2016. The city’s plan to reduce violence hinges in part on getting more help to those shooting survivors, who struggle with trauma and can sometimes become involved in retaliation and contribute to the spread of violence.

The new report makes repeated references to the state’s victim compensation program, with the authors calling on the city to do more to help victims of violence access help for things like medical bills, mental health counseling or missed hours at work. A recent study found that Illinois victims are among the least likely to apply for victims’ compensation in the country.

“That really speaks to an important facet of Chicago’s violence, which is that it’s really generational, that it’s been going on in many of these communities like Englewood or Roseland or North Lawndale for generations,” Lee said.

She said reaching gun violence victims quickly and helping with trauma and mental health, while also alleviating some of the “hidden cost of violence,” will help stop the generational cycle of violence.

The plan also seeks to address the stark disparities between Chicago’s richest and poorest neighborhoods when it comes to safety and security. Neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides account for a “disproportionate share” of the city’s violence, with just 15 neighborhoods accounting for more than half of the city’s shootings.

To try and shrink the gap between Chicago’s safest neighborhoods and its most dangerous, the plan calls for the city to expand access to jobs and housing for the people closest to the city’s violence, including expanding transitional jobs for people “with a history of violence involvement” and making housing available for survivors of domestic violence.

The plan, which is more than a year in the making, comes as Chicago is grappling with a huge spike in gun violence. Through Sept. 20, shootings and murders were up 50 % compared to the same time last year. The report attributes the spike at least in part to disruptions in services and the economy caused by COVID-19.

The plan is also coming as several anti-violence organizations have been agitating for more public support for their work. A coalition of groups recently called for the city to increase its funding on community-based violence work from about $11 million this year to $50 million annually. And former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who worked with Lee when she was his employee at the anti-violence group Chicago CRED, recently called on the city to reduce the Chicago Police Department’s budget by $150 to $200 million a year and spend the money on community-based prevention.

The new violence reduction plan does call generally for increasing the city’s investment in those organizations, but for the upcoming budget the plan only calls for “sustaining” the current investment levels.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 will be a particularly challenging budget season and so the [office of violence reduction] intends to grow these investments in subsequent years,” the report states.

Eddie Bocanegra, who leads the violence prevention program READI Chicago, told WBEZ on Monday he was “eager to see” the mayor’s violence reduction plan.

Bocanegra said early research has shown that programs like his, which try to provide jobs, training and therapy to the men most likely to shoot or be shot, are effective at reducing violence. He said he understands the difficult economic situation facing the city, but also said the city is losing money in the long run by not investing more in violence prevention, because of the economic toll violence takes on the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“In light of what’s taking place in our city, you know, we should be doubling down on efforts … that are showing promise,” Bocanegra told WBEZ before the anti-violence plan was released. “I’m glad that the mayor’s office has put more than ten million dollars into the office of violence prevention. I applaud that. I’m in favor of that. And I’m so glad that is happening under her leadership. But when you compare that budget with other budgets across the city, I can’t help but to wonder how much of violence prevention is a priority.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.