On Policing, Brandon Johnson’s Progressive Promises Meet Their First Tests

The Chicago mayor's early policy and personnel decisions are providing clues to whether he can chart a different course on public safety in the city.

Max Blaisdell   |    July 21, 2023

Brandon Johnson with Fred Waller, his pick for interim Chicago Police superintendent. (Facebook/ Chicago Police Department)

On April 4, Chicago progressives cheered when Brandon Johnson won the mayoral race by defeating Paul Vallas, who was backed by the city’s police union. Vallas, who predicted a less safe Chicago if voters picked Johnson, promised to beef up policing in the city while Johnson, by contrast, spoke about strengthening other public services to not rely on the police as a catch-all solution for public safety. 

During his inauguration on May 15, Johnson called for new investments in housing, mental health, and youth employment, with special attention to outlying neighborhoods that have long experienced divestment and violence. 

“We don’t want our story to be that Chicago became so traumatized by violence and despair that our residents felt no other choice but to leave us,” Johnson said in his speech to a joyous crowd of supporters at the Credit Union 1 Arena. “A safe Chicago means a safe Chicago for all, no matter what you look like, who you love, or where you live, we’ll do it together by investing in people.”

Since that celebratory day, Johnson has had to tackle the realities of governing, which have tripped up other progressive politicians who tried to deliver on their campaign planks while navigating the ire of cops. Chicago’s police union has already vowed to retaliate against his reforms, and similar threats have cowed many officials over the years. But the city’s activist community, whose support propelled him into office, now expects him to deliver on his ambitious plans. 

Over the last few months, several key policy and personnel decisions have already tested whether Johnson can chart a new course on public safety in the city, offering an early case study for how left-leaning officials try to sustain their commitments in the face of police opposition. Since May, Johnson has created a new “community safety” office, which is tasked with coordinating the mayor’s “root cause” approach to public safety.

But he also raised progressive groups’ eyebrows with his pick for an interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department (CPD)—a member of the top brass who’s been critiqued for perpetuating a culture of protectionism and coverups—and when he left in place a controversial police surveillance contract that he’d pledged to end during his campaign. These were both temporary moves that he’ll get a chance to revisit soon. 

And Johnson is just now facing what may be his greatest test yet—summertime in Chicago, when gun violence has historically spiked, especially on the South and West sides, and when supporters and skeptics alike will be looking to see if the new mayor turns his lofty campaign promises into substance. 

“Johnson is quite right that dealing with jobs, social services, and mental health are things that can dramatically lower the crime problem that we have in Chicago,” Dick Simpson, a former alderman and professor emeritus in political science at the University of Illinois Chicago who is a longtime commentator on local politics, told Bolts.

“As long as things are going more or less in the correct direction, and you don’t have a Laquan McDonald’s shooting,” he said, referencing the 2014 killing of a 17-year-old at the hands of Chicago police which set off a national uproar that permanently marred Rahm Emmanuel’s administration. “[Johnson] has about two or three years to get it right.”

On his very first day in the 5th Floor office of City Hall, Johnson signed an executive order creating the new role of Deputy Mayor for Community Safety, who would be tasked with coordinating the city’s efforts to address the “the root causes of crime, violence, and harm, and to advance a holistic and comprehensive approach to community safety.” Four days later, Johnson appointed Garien Gatewood, director of the Illinois Justice Project, for the role.

Simpson called Gatewood’s appointment “a good step” in turning the mayor’s policy promises into action.

“The mayor needs an appointed person to filter out what comes in the massive [crime statistics] reports, or even the police superintendent waltzing in and saying things are going fine.” 

Johnson has called the “community safety” position a novel one, although Mayor Lori Lightfoot had a deputy mayor for public safety with the similar task of shifting the city beyond “law-enforcement driven solution(s).” Susan Lee, Lightfoot’s pick for the job, did so by directing funding to violence prevention organizations, but Lee was severely undermined by alderpeople who were skeptical of that approach amid rising homicides and shootings after the pandemic, and she eventually resigned. 

Gatewood has a staff of eight, but he admitted in an interview with WTTW that his office does not have the funding necessary to deliver on Johnson’s comprehensive approach to public safety alone and called for help from the city’s business and philanthropic communities. That approach involves pouring money into social services like job training, counseling and mental health services into Chicago’s most distressed areas, he also said.

Alongside key appointments, Johnson is now poised to implement the signature policy proposals for public safety that he touted during his campaign and included in his transition plan. Many of these policies are not entirely new, but have actually been introduced in the city council under past administrations. Before, they were blocked by unsupportive mayors, but Chicago progressives are now hoping that having a career organizer in the mayor’s office will now make a difference. 

Though Lightfoot counted herself as a supporter of the Bring Chicago Home policy to create new housing for more than 65,000 unhoused people in the city using real estate transfer taxes during her first campaign, she held up its passage during her term. Neither did she offer support for the Peace Book ordinance introduced in 2022, which would allocate 2 percent of the police department’s budget to create youth-led gun violence reduction programs.

Another of those stalled policies is the “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance, which would invest $100 million to create non-police crisis response teams to 911 calls when people are experiencing mental health crises and reopen the city’s neighborhood mental health clinics that were closed under the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot’s predecessor. This measure is central to Johnson’s push, as expressed in his transition report, to “define violence overall as a public health issue,” and address it as such. 

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, alderperson of the 35th Ward who was first elected in 2015, told Bolts the reasons why he and his fellow progressives in City Hall couldn’t get these measures passed before came down to mayoral priorities.

“[Lightfoot] pulled out all the stops to even prevent [them] from receiving a hearing under her administration,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “What we love about this new administration is that progressives don’t just have a seat at the table, but they are now leading and at the forefront of legislating in City Hall.”

While the city council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, which includes alderpeople from across the city like Ramirez-Rosa, Jeanette Taylor, and the driving force behind Treatment Not Trauma, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez will back Johnson should he bring any of these measures up for a vote, their votes amount to 19 out of the 25 needed for passage, so he’ll need an additional six alderpeople on board before he can get them through the chamber. But Ramirez-Rosa is confident they can muster those.

“Between the number of progressives in City Council and also support from the mayor, I have no doubt that we’ll have the votes necessary to move these forward,” he said.

Critics of Johnson’s approach, like the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times, have raised concerns about funding these programs at a time when the city is facing a major fiscal shortfall. Even if he overcomes these hurdles, raises the necessary revenue, and passes all three programs in the coming months, which Ramirez-Rosa expects to happen, it will still take considerable time for them to have an effect, and so they won’t put a dent in the city’s violence until well after this summer is past.

Vaughn Bryant, executive director at Metropolitan Peace Initiatives who previously developed the citywide violence prevention program called Safe Passages, told the TRiiBE recently that the timeline for these long-term violence prevention efforts to succeed isn’t months or years but potentially decades.

“It took [Los Angeles] 20 years to get to a point where they are now,” Bryant said, describing Los Angeles’ current crime statistics, which is about one-third of the number of homicides per 100,000 people that occur every year in Chicago. And the more people are exposed to high-levels of neighborhood violence like in Chicago, the greater their likelihood of getting involved in violence themselves, which is especially true among the young. 

That’s why Ramirez-Rosa sees Johnson’s summer youth employment program as “critically important” in the interim, as a near-term solution. 

The city’s summer jobs program is employing close to 24,000 young people this year, up 2,000 jobs from 2022. But that total represents a little more than half of the 45,000 who applied to the program. Johnson has since vowed to ensure that every teen and young adult who wants a job through the program gets one. 

“We’ve already made some strides this summer in terms of increasing youth employment and youth employment opportunities,” Ramirez-Rosa told Bolts. “We’re going to continue to make progress in the coming years.”

Johnson has also had to address new crises that have surfaced since his inauguration. His first major piece of legislation was not one of the much-touted public safety ordinances but a $51 million package for immediate relief for asylum-seekers who began arriving in the city at a pace of 100 per day in May after being bused north from border states like Texas. 

While the mayor mustered the support necessary to secure its passage, it was not without a fight. Several alderpeople from wards that voted strongly in favor of Johnson over Vallas vociferously opposed this measure, as well as concurring plans to house asylum-seekers in closed-down public school buildings.

Besides navigating sudden crises, and all the routine politicking with fellow elected officials, Johnson will still need to engage with the city’s existing apparatus for public safety—the police. His biggest hurdle will likely be the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which opposes many of the reforms he has called for, such as strengthening mechanisms for police accountability. 

“It’s not like a wage dispute where one side wants 6 percent increase and the other side wants 2 percent and they agree on 4 percent,” Simpson told Bolts. “The leadership and membership [of the FOP], for the most part, are totally hostile to the ideas that Johnson has.” 

Besides constituting an important voting bloc and marshaling significant campaign funding to their preferred candidates, major municipal police unions have flexed their power over would-be reformers by staging dramatic acts of public disdain, like when CPD officers turned their backs to Lightfoot in 2021 as she was visiting two injured officers in the hospital, or, more seriously, conducting deliberate work slowdowns, like the New York Police Department allegedly did in response to the George Floyd protests that roiled the city even as shootings spiked in the year thereafter.

FOP President John Catanzara warned before the election that there would be “blood in the streets” of Chicago and a spate of resignations should Johnson assume office, and it remains to be seen if the FOP will make good on that threat. In an early effort to warm the relationship with rank-and-file police officers, Johnson expressed firm support for them while attending a recent swearing-in for rookie cops.

Johnson is already making leadership decisions for police. David Brown stepped down as superintendent after Lori Lightfoot was defeated in the mayoral race in the first round in February, and then her interim choice Eric Carter resigned unexpectedly after only two months on the job.

Johnson in early May tapped Fred Waller as a new interim police chief, provoking complaints that Johnson was reneging on his commitments to reform the scandal-ridden department. Waller is known for having promoted Alvin Jones in 2012, an officer implicated in a sweeping police corruption and extortion racket, 10 months after an investigation by CPD’s Internal Affairs Department and the FBI caught two of his closest team members red handed in a sting operation. 

Waller has since claimed he didn’t know about Jones’ misdeeds at the time he promoted him, but critics accuse him of being complicit in the department’s “code of silence,” not just overlooking serious misconduct but sometimes actively covering up for it when calls for accountability arise.

In addition, Waller was suspended in 2020 for saying “grope me, don’t rape me,” in a meeting about the decision to move officers from police districts to other units. He used banked vacation time to serve the 28-day penalty, so he did not miss a day of paid work, but still decided to resign from the force a few months later.

According to Simpson, Johnson likely chose Waller, despite his questionable history, because “he’s not viewed as shaking the boat.”

“Police aren’t going to be unhappy with him, even if he makes adjustments,” Simpson continued. “That’s a pretty good interim solution, assuming that a new police superintendent is appointed long term and that is someone who can actually handle the job.”

Waller’s tenure is likely to be short-lived, though. Johnson will soon make a permanent selection for CPD’s superintendent from the list of three nominees selected by the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability last week. That newly created police oversight body, which includes members directly elected by the public, evaluated the applications of 54 candidates who applied for the position in May, and narrowed it down to a list of three candidates, two from within the ranks of CPD, and one from outside. 

In an initial public meeting after the announcement, some community members were more hopeful in the internal candidates’ abilities to implement reforms, while others remained skeptical of the entire police department’s ability to change, the Triibe reports. The FOP, for their part, commended the selection process.

“This process is 100 times better than when the police board was conducting it,” Catanzara said. “It’s much more fair and inclusive.”

 The mayor now has 30 days to review the candidates, but can also ask the commission to go back to the drawing board and give him new names. Whatever nominee he ultimately picks will also need to be approved by the city council.

Johnson has also faced criticism that he has backtracked on a campaign pledge to immediately terminate CPD’s contract for a controversial gunfire detection technology called ShotSpotter.

Jose Manuel Almanza, director of advocacy and movement building at Equiticity, has been at the forefront of the movement to end the ShotSpotter agreement. According to Almanza, it started in 2021 when a group of organizers in the working-class neighborhood of Little Village convened to develop a response to the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. 

In that nationally publicized case, CPD officers responded to the scene after receiving a ShotSpotter notification that a gun was fired in the neighborhood. An officer pursued Toledo into an alley, shooting him as he turned around and raised his hands in apparent surrender.

Recent studies by the MacArthur Justice Center and the city’s Office of the Inspector General found that CPD officers responding to ShotSpotter alerts rarely collect evidence relating to gun crimes but do engage in discriminatory practices of stopping and frisking Black and Latinx folks.

“It changes the CPD’s behavior,” Almanza told Bolts. “They find me walking down the block to my friend’s house, or they find my neighbors hanging out in front of a friend’s house, or they find my cousin walking to the corner store, and because ShotSpotter is telling them that [a shot was fired in the area], they treat us as suspects.” 

When Johnson pledged on his campaign website to “end the ShotSpotter contract and invest in new resources that go after illegal guns without physically stopping and frisking Chicagoans on the street,” Almanza was on board as a supporter, even going so far as to volunteer his time as an unpaid canvasser for Johnson. 

“Past administrations, not just here in Chicago, but in any major city and the federal government, there’s never really been a big effort to address those issues,” he said. “It’s always been addressing the symptoms of crime, reacting to the symptoms of crime, and not really solving what’s really causing these things so they don’t happen.” 

That’s why Almaza was enraged to see that the city would not be canceling the contract early. Instead, Johnson’s signature appeared on a document authorizing a $10 million extension payment to SoundThinking, the organization that runs the ShotSpotter technology. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told WBEZ that Johnson may have had no choice but to approve the payment Lightfoot had already authorized, but that his automatic signature placed on the document was a mistake. 

Almanza worries about the influence of SoundThinking, whose deal with the city represents 11 percent of their overall revenues.

“They’re co-opting the movement’s language, talking about equity, trying to gain support from community members [by] changing the way they’re talking about ShotSpotter,” Almanza said.

Activists like Almanza feel betrayed about this delay, as well as the mayor’s decision not to remove armed officers from Chicago Public Schools after saying that police “have no place in schools.” But he’s not giving up on Johnson just yet.

“It’s up to us to hold him accountable to those things,” he continued. “That’s not to say it in a negative way, that’s saying it in a coalition, base-building kind of way, where we all have the same goal in mind.Johnson’s only been in office for like, what, a [couple] month[s]. Right now, we’re giving him the benefit of the doubt.”