Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday defended her plan to sue Chicago gang members against criticisms that the effort would be pointless, racist and financially foolish.
Lightfoot’s defense came in the run-up to Friday’s scheduled City Council committee hearing on the “Victims’ Justice Ordinance,” and a day after more than 50 civil rights attorneys warned that pursuing the plan would mean costly lawsuits against the city.
Members of Chicago’s Civil Rights bar sent a letter to Lightfoot on Wednesday, warning the mayor that empowering city attorneys to seize assets from alleged gang members would do nothing to improve public safety and would instead exacerbate racial inequity in the city.
Those criticisms echo concerns voiced by a range of organizations, including the ACLU of Illinois, the Cook County public defender and multiple anti-violence groups.
What was new in the letter was an implied threat of civil action should Lightfoot successfully get her ordinance through the City Council. The letter warns that the “proposed law will almost certainly embroil the City in costly litigation,” a warning that comes from attorneys who frequently sue the city — and often win big payouts.
“Chicago has a long history of unlawful and racially discriminatory law enforcement practices focused on alleged ‘street gangs.’ These practices generated significant legal challenges—each of which the City either lost or resolved through settlement after protracted, expensive litigation,” the letter reads. “The Victims Justice Ordinance will likely suffer the same fate because it contains overly broad language, among other legal flaws.”
Sheila Bedi, director of the Community Justice Clinic at Northwestern University Law School, was one of the signees. She said the city’s plan is likely to result in due process violations and complaints of discrimination, because the city’s past efforts at identifying gang members almost exclusively targeted Black and Latino people.
“The … letter has been signed on by a group of attorneys who are themselves responsible for taxpayers paying millions … of dollars in legal fees. And they’re making clear that if this ordinance is going to come to pass, legal challenges will follow,” Bedi said.
Lightfoot on Thursday said she did not expect that to happen, because she pledged city attorneys will be thorough and transparent when going after gang assets.
“We have to make the case under the terms of the legislation that … there’s a criminal enterprise and that the criminal enterprise has very specific proceeds, manifested in property, assets and other things,” Lightfoot said. “So it’s a high burden for us to meet. And it’s going to be evaluated by a judge.”
The City Council’s public safety committee is scheduled to hold a subject matter hearing on the ordinance Friday afternoon, but will not be taking a vote. Lightfoot said she wanted aldermen and the public to have a chance to ask questions and learn more about her plan before it’s put to a vote.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Ald. Chris Taliaferro said he was still reviewing the ordinance, but defended the plan against critics.
“I can’t really give you an assessment of whether it will make us safer. But I am also a firm believer in that we have to try something, we have to try different measures and strategies that will reduce violence in the city,” Taliaferro said. “And so I would be very excited to see those that are willing to criticize, and those that are willing to debunk strategic efforts to help us come up with a viable solution. Because we all live in this city. We all are experiencing a stark increase in violence.”
Taliaferro said the claim from civil rights attorneys that the plan could result in lawsuits against the city gave him pause, but he said he trusts the city’s law department to protect taxpayers from legal liability. He also stressed that seizing illegal assets is “nothing new.”
However, Ald. Ray Lopez said the warning from civil rights attorneys was legitimate and another strike against Lightfoot’s plan.
“Their points about this being costly is very much a concern at a time when we have to borrow millions to cover our settlements,” Lopez said. “Now we’re gonna have to borrow and possibly start budgeting for even more millions, based on if we seize the wrong thing. Seize the wrong asset.”
Lopez frequently advocates for tough penalties against Chicago gangsters, but said he didn’t see the effort doing anything to deter the city’s criminals.
“The mayor is going at this like she’s chasing down the cartels and the mafia of the 1980s. But that is not how gangs in Chicago operate. These aren’t necessarily highly sophisticated groups. And the assets that she is trying to envision capturing do not belong to the individuals committing the crimes in the city of Chicago. More often than not, they’re living in their … grandmother’s basement, using their girlfriend’s car, and barely have money in their own pocket,” Lopez said.