Witnessing a burglary in real time. A girlfriend getting carjacked on a Saturday afternoon. An assault near a CTA platform.
As crime has crept into Chicago wards that have historically been least affected by the city’s gun violence, it has spurred a wave of candidates running for council. Many of them are even citing their personal run-ins, such as those above, as a cornerstone of their anti-crime campaigns.
And in neighborhoods where crime and gun violence has been the dominant issue for decades, reducing violence is once again front and center in this year’s elections.
“I pray to God it is,” anti-violence advocate Tamar Manasseh said of crime taking on a greater focus this election. “Because if it doesn’t become a priority for all of us, then it’s just going to keep getting worse.”
Chicago, like many cities across the country, saw a historic rise in violent crime following the global pandemic. While gun violence has decreased moderately this year, the decline follows the city’s most violent year in a quarter century in 2021.
In many wards, the upcoming election will be a referendum on the incumbent’s handling of crime, for better or worse.
“If crime being up is a reason [to vote out incumbents] then there’d be 50 new aldermen, there’d be 180 new legislators in Springfield, and we’d have a brand new Congress,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea, who’s facing two challengers in his Southwest Side 19th Ward.
What control do aldermen actually have over reducing crime in the city? More than some may think.
“Our hands are not tied,” said Proco “Joe” Moreno, a former alderman who is running to reclaim his seat to represent the 1st Ward. But he noted: “We’re not Batman.”
Aldermen have a say over the Chicago Police Department’s budget, they can pass citywide policy to holistically address factors that contribute to crime and they can make concrete improvements in their ward.
But it’s ultimately a frustrating endeavor for aldermen, said Dick Simpson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman who represented the 44th Ward in the 1970s.
“They will get much blame if things go badly,” Simpson said, “but they won’t get much credit if they are effective in moderating crime.”
Aldermen can push for more police, but some challengers say that’s outdated
In the Far South Side’s 17th Ward, Ald. David Moore has a canopy tent branded with the ward’s logo he sets up in areas where he suspects drug deals or other criminal activity is happening.
It’s a way, he says, of forcing police to pay attention to the crime in his neighborhoods.
“Then when they’re trying to do drug sales, I put it on Facebook Live, and then they can’t do drug sales and police say, ‘Okay, David is [there], he’s on it. We gotta get out there.’ ”
A lot of Moore’s time as an alderman of one of the city’s most violent wards is spent like this — responding repeatedly to crime in progress, and trying to get police to do the same.
For many incumbent aldermen across the city — across racial and political spectrums — maintaining a daily relationship with police leadership is one of the most effective ways, they say, to reduce crime.
“Nobody’s had the relationship with the police that I have, that can actually pick up the phone and get help,” said Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, who is facing five challengers — one of the most of any incumbent who was elected in 2019.
Sposato, whose majority-white Northwest Side ward has not faced the same systemic hurdles to safety as those on the South and West sides, said his relationship with the police led to him getting an additional eight officers in his ward this past year.
But even then, he said, aldermen have little control over police staffing. Of those eight officers, five were promoted to sergeants, one retired and another left the district, he said.
The typically quiet 50th Ward on the Far North Side has seen five homicides so far this year — a 150% increase compared to the two that occurred in 2021 — according to city data.
Incumbent Ald. Debra Silverstein said what the ward needs is more police, which she says she’s been able to get more of because of her relationship with police leaders.
“I have all of my commanders’ phone numbers on speed dial,” Silverstein said.
But the idea that more police officers, or having them on speed dial, will lead to greater safety is outdated, according to numerous challengers hoping to snag a council seat in 2023.
“You can’t police away these problems,” said Mueze Bawany, the sole challenger to Silverstein. “You’re asking people to comply, rather than showing them what love and justice looks like.”
Across the city in the 19th Ward, O’Shea, the incumbent alderman, is also getting hit with criticism that his focus on supporting the police takes away from time spent addressing the root causes of violence.
The ward is among those with the least gun violence, but shootings have increased since 2019, jumping from one shooting that year to nine so far this year.
“I believe he sees that the police are the focus of public safety and not the public … I believe that when we’re focusing on trying to address crime as a whole, we need to add both the public and the police in entirety,” said candidate Tim Noonan, who believes the historically conservative 19th Ward is taking a shift toward the left.
O’Shea said while he’s been a strong advocate for mental health resources and job opportunities in the ward, the area’s spike in crime is directly tied to the “dangerously low staffing levels at CPD” that he has pushed to address. O’Shea is also facing a challenger from the right in former Chicago police sergeant Michael Cummings.
Aldermen can spend “menu” money on public safety
After Sam Royko’s girlfriend was car-jacked on a Saturday afternoon in Wicker Park nearly two years ago, he founded a neighborhood group that has advocated for more action.
“There’s still moments where someone runs up behind her and she’s jumpy or things like that,” Royko said of his girlfriend, “but we’re really trying to put our energy into trying to turn something that was a difficult experience for us into improving our community and our city.”
In 2019, the 1st Ward saw 15 carjackings. That soared to 80 in 2021. Carjackings are down to 51 so far this year, according to city data.
Andy Schneider, who’s running in the 1st Ward, said better organizing the neighborhood through phone trees — so they know who to call to get action — will help. Royko proposed using “menu money” to build a camera grid to help supplement a shortage of police officers.
“Menu money” refers to the $1.5 million allocated to aldermen each year to spend on infrastructure improvements in their ward, such as sidewalks and streets.
Moreno, who’s also running in the 1st Ward, said he would take $4 million of those funds — multiple years’ worth — to outfit a state-of-the-art satellite police station that was shuttered in 2012. The station has since been used by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office’s warrants division.
But Ald. Daniel La Spata, who unseated Moreno in 2019 as the former alderman faced a string of scandals, said that would be taking two-thirds of the discretionary funds and plugging it into a project that other city departments should instead be determining funding for.
“To me that would be a really reckless and inappropriate use of our menu money,” said La Spata, who uses a participatory budgeting model to allow residents to have a say in where the dollars go.
Still, spending menu money on public safety initiatives is a pressure aldermen across the city face from residents.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward, was elected into office in 2019 on a social justice platform of addressing issues such as the lack of job opportunities, mental health resources or economic development in her South Side ward.
But she said she’s had to face the reality that while constituents may have voted for broader reform, they wanted solutions to help reduce day-to-day crime, too.
She has used some of her menu money on more security cameras to an area in her ward near the expressway where residents have complained about shootings occurring, for instance.
“I haven’t wanted to — believe me,” Taylor said. “But I do understand cameras will give [police] access to see what happens … I haven’t been happy about it, because that’s the same money that I got to fix streets, that I’ve got to fix sidewalks.”
Aldermen have some power over police budget
When 15 people were shot outside of a funeral home in Auburn-Gresham two years ago, Manasseh, the founder of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, said she had warned the police beforehand of the potential danger for violence.
But the precautions police took weren’t enough, Manasseh said, an example of why it’s time to take a new approach.
“If you don’t actually work with the community, if you don’t secure it, if you don’t make it safer, what am I paying you all this money for?” Manasseh said.
Aldermen have a check over the Police Department in one major way — they’re the ones who can approve or reject its annual spending plan as they vote on the city’s budget.
There’s been growing calls in the past four years to reduce the Police Department’s budget, diverting resources instead to address the root causes of violence.
“It’s almost like a public safety industrial complex in regards to ‘Let’s add more money, let’s add more money, add more money’ to a solution that just isn’t working,” said Noonan, the candidate challenging O’Shea from the left in the 19th Ward.
But changing the mayoral-proposed spending plan is no small feat.
That’s in part because the Police Department’s spending plan is part of the city’s overall, massive $16 billion budget. Voting no on the department’s budget could also mean voting no on proposals in other departments that could directly help residents.
In 2021, for instance, progressive aldermen overwhelmingly supported Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget, which increased police spending, because it also included a slew of progressive proposals, such as a guaranteed basic income pilot program. In 2023, the Police Department’s budget will increase again, by 3.4%, without the support of many progressive aldermen this time around.
Chris Cleary’s campaign focuses on reducing crime in the 42nd Ward, which has seen a 410% increase in shootings — from 10 to 51 — since 2019. Cleary wants to bring more security to the ward, either from Chicago Police or private firms.
Incumbent Ald. Brendan Reilly said it’s naive for his challenger to think they’ll have real sway over the Police Department.
“It is nothing short of pandering for a candidate for alderman to suggest that they can somehow dictate change in the Police Department,” Reilly said. “As a legislator, we do routinely hold the Police Department’s feet to the fire. But at the end of these hearings, they go back to running the department and aldermen be damned.”
Instead, Reilly said he, like his colleagues, has focused on his individual relationships with police officials.
“Because we don’t control CPD, I’ve been leveraging my personal and political relationships to secure more resources for our downtown neighborhoods. I’ve been working with Cook County Sheriff Dart and downtown landlords to help open not one but two downtown sheriff’s command posts,” Reilly said.
Aldermen can push policies for civilian oversight, affect violence’s root causes
But there’s a growing shift toward Chicagoans having more say over Police Department policy, largely due to activists and the progressive aldermen they’ve worked with to enact change.
Next year, residents can serve on elected police district councils that will launch a new model of civilian oversight of the police.
Activists and aldermen fought for years to enact the ordinance creating those district councils, which will help nominate members and set priorities for the newly-formed Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability.
The progressive tilt of the council that was ushered in by 2019’s elections has resulted in a greater focus on citywide policy to tackle ways in which crime manifests. For instance, the council pushed the mayor to fund a pilot program to send mental health providers on crisis calls with police.
But even when aldermen have been successful in getting infusions into department budgets to invest in areas like workforce development and youth diversion programs through the Chicago Recovery Plan, a year later some of the departments allocated those dollars have spent little of them.
And passing citywide legislation as an alderman can be a challenge in Chicago, where the mayor, through various channels, has significant control over policymaking. Those challenges ring true for progressive, moderate and conservative aldermen alike.
“Typically, the administration crushes ordinances that look to dictate police policies,” Reilly said, referring to an ordinance he thinks could improve public safety by offering retention bonuses to police officers, which hasn’t gotten a vote.
“The administration wants to have total control over the Police Department, and the previous administrations did, too. So I think your readers deserve that level of honesty.”
Ultimately, while many agree focusing on citywide policy changes is an important way to improve public safety, the day-to-day incidents can be consuming, said Moore, of the 17th Ward.
There’s a balance, he said, between responding to crime and pushing for overall change like more police oversight.
“That tension is there,” Moore said. “We tried to deal with these upper level policies, [but] I’m like, I don’t need that, because Ms. Johnson don’t care about that right now.”
In the 1st Ward, where carjackings have seen a dramatic increase over the last few years, crimes such as shootings and homicides are still significantly lower than in some of the high crime areas. But it’s still among the top issues candidates say they hear about.
“Statistics don’t always dictate our feelings about our neighborhoods. Perception is the reality when it comes to public safety,” La Spata said. “…I don’t know that I can litigate or govern for how people feel. I can do the work, though, of actually addressing the root causes and the immediate responses on public safety issues on a daily basis.”
For Moore, even though he’s not facing a challenger this time around, this year’s election — and focus on crime — isn’t much different than years past.
“You’re talking to a young man who grew up in Robert Taylor Homes, who grew up as a young man in Englewood,” Moore said. “That has always been the focus, but in some years has not been a priority. But now people are saying that it’s a priority because it’s touching their neighborhoods in their communities.”
Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover city government and politics at WBEZ.