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Public safety debate fuels voters ahead of Chicago election

Public safety is a national concern that motivates people to vote, especially in non-presidential years. That is especially true in Chicago.
Posted at 3:13 PM, Mar 31, 2023

This is Chicago, but it could be any city in America. It's a place still grappling with pandemic spikes in crime, and its people are still searching for an answer on how to make public spaces safe for everyone.

With an election on April 3, Chicago is also a city in the midst of a contentious battle for mayor between two candidates who have two very different visions for public safety, opposing viewpoints we've heard echoed across the country: Strengthen police departments or invest the money into other solutions.

Before retiring last November, former Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido says he saw an attitude shift against police that took him and his peers by surprise.

"It was an incredibly dramatic change," he said. "To have your politicians and your local elected officials that are supposed to be supporting you and have your back turn on you so quickly — that's a dramatic impact on morale," he said. 

Chicago Police recently told media outlets that they have about 1,500 sworn officer vacancies. Last year alone, 1,000 officers left the force, some before they could collect their pensions. Garrido believes this is the result of local and national anti-police rhetoric that's impeding the department from doing their job.

"We're operating on fumes right now, the officers are exhausted, it's not a safe working environment for the officers or the community because response times are slower, backup is slower," said Garrido. 

He says he isn't against changes to policing, but emphasizes the need for a full police force with the ability to retain officers to come first. 

"You can't do more with less when it comes to law enforcement," he said. 

"We're not talking about rebuilding trust. We're not talking about trust at all. We're talking about power," said Frank Chapman, executive director of NAARPA, the National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, based in Chicago. 

A private police officer drives his car.

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Chapman has been doing advocacy work since the early 1970s to rethink how policing could better serve Black communities like his. He says the distrust of police stretches back generations and that he's heard the argument of needing to get "tough on crime" before.

"The people of Chicago are sick and tired of the problem being recycled by saying that the crime rate is up, this is happening and that is happening. There's gun violence and so forth and so on, therefore, we need more police," he said. "If the police are going to be responsible for making the police better, then it ain't gonna get no damn better, because that's like the worm investigating its tail."

In February, Chicagoans elected people to its first civilian police oversight board, the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability. This commission is something Chapman's organization advocated for. The fact that it become a reality, he says, proves the city is hungry for change to police business as usual. 

"When we don't have faith in promises, cause politicians make promises all the time, we have faith in the action," he said. 

Mayoral Candidate Paul Vallas wants to fill all the vacancies on the force, be tougher on misdemeanor crimes and bolster arrest rates. Candidate Brandon Johnson wants to promote 200 current officers to detectives and invest in youth, mental health and victims resources.

It's easy to recognize America has deep-rooted issues that have lead to where we are today in terms of people feeling safe. How we solve those, however, continues to be a point of contention. With the results of the Chicago election, we will get to witness another example of either philosophy at work.