Progressive candidate Brandon Johnson won a tightly contested election on April 4 to be the next mayor of Chicago. Despite being outspent two-to-one by opponent Paul Vallas, Johnson clinched victory, with 51.4 percent support at publication time. His campaign rejected Vallas’s “tough on crime” posture and instead focused on addressing root causes of violence.
Chicago residents were voting in a runoff to replace Lori Lightfoot, who is leaving office after losing her bid for reelection. Cook County Commissioner Johnson and Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools—both Democrats, like Lightfoot—were the top two finishers in the first round in February.
Johnson will now lead the nation’s third largest city, responsible for various vast city agencies and departments. But in Chicago and nationwide, millions will be watching to see how he approaches crime and public safety, which were central to the race.
Johnson’s approach calls for investment in non-police responses, including violence intervention.
Like many cities, Chicago suffered a spike in homicides in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The number reached a record-high 802 lives lost in 2021. Killings fell to 688 last year—a level still higher than all but three of the past 20 years. The majority of victims are Black men.
Vallas called Chicago a “city [in] crisis”, and attacked Johnson’s stance on “defunding the police.” He pledged to hire more police officers and bring back neighborhood policing beats. He was supported by the city’s police union.
Johnson had made past comments that defunding the police was an “actual, real political goal,” but denied supporting the idea himself in his campaign.
“As far as my vision for public safety, I’m not going to defund the police,” Johnson said in a March interview with Block Club Chicago. “But what I am committed to doing is to make sure that we are actually investing in a smart way.”
“The fact of the matter is that we are asking too much of law enforcement,” he continued, “and we also have a disconnect between law enforcement and communities which they have been assigned to. And so we have to fix that.”
Johnson’s approach calls for investment in non-police responses, including violence intervention on public transit and hiring non-police responders to mental health emergencies. And he pledged to make Chicago comply with its federal consent decree to increase police transparency and accountability.
He also plans to immediately promote 200 new police detectives, to address the city’s low rate of solving homicides, which is lower still in Black communities. And he wants to create a new anti-gun trafficking department.
In October 2022, Mayor Lightfoot proposed raising the budget for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) up to $1.9 billion, slightly more than the $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2022. In fact, the CPD budget has increased every fiscal year since 2016—with the exception of fiscal year 2021. And that cut wasn’t because Mayor Lightfoot heeded the calls of racial justice activists, but because the city faced a massive budget shortfall from the pandemic.
To put that $1.9 billion in perspective, Chicago is actually spending almost three times more now, adjusted for population, than it was nearly 60 years ago. The city’s population has decreased in that time, but spending-per-resident on police has shot up. According to Injustice Watch, Chicago’s per capita police spending is higher than Los Angeles and more than double that of Miami-Dade County in Florida.
Vallas promised to fill all vacancies by training new officers more quickly and enticing back retirees.
The city’s own police watchdog commission also found in November 2022 that the department’s huge budget is not being spent “effectively or equitably,” and that it has no “long-term, data-driven strategy to reduce violence.”
Beyond funding, staffing will be another politically contentious issue for Mayor Johnson. According to NBC Chicago, the CPD currently has about 1,700 vacant positions for both officers and detectives, and saw a wave of retirements in the wake of controversy over a policy that cut paid days off.
Vallas promised to fill all vacancies by training new officers more quickly and enticing back retirees with restored pensions. Johnson slammed that plan, and focused instead on his pledge to promote detectives from within the department.
Another example of Chicago politicians’ differing approaches to policing is on “no-knock” raids, which have gained nationwide notoriety. It was a no-knock raid in Louisville, Kentucky that led to the killing of 26-year old Breonna Taylor in March 2020.
Johnson has promised to support a no-knock raids ban.
One example of this practice in Chicago came in 2019, when police wrongfully raided the home of Anjanette Young, a Black woman, and forced her to stand naked as they searched her home.
Mayor Lightfoot falsely claimed she wasn’t informed about that raid before it made the news, then tried to stop a TV station from airing footage. This led five city lawmakers to introduce an ordinance banning no-knock raids. Lightfoot opposed the bill, saying the raids were necessary for quick police action.
Johnson has promised to support the ban. And Young, who ultimately received a settlement of almost $3 million from the city for her ordeal, endorsed him for mayor.
Johnson’s election is likely to accelerate efforts in the past several years—city, state and even federal—to invest in community violence intervention work. Under these programs, family members, friends, teachers and mentors are recruited within communities to mediate in conflicts and stop violence before it happens. Research has shown it to be an effective approach.
According to Block Club Chicago, city, county and state investments in Chicago violence intervention increased from a combined $7 million in 2017 to $124 million in 2022. The city alone spent nearly $85 million last year on services including street outreach, victim services, trauma-informed training, youth violence reduction, domestic violence services and re-entry services for people leaving jail. And Cook County just dropped another $25 million in grants.
Johnson’s election sends the message that Chicago residents want a different approach to public safety.
Johnson has endorsed this kind of work and wants to expand it. He’s promised to double youth summer employment to 60,000 jobs, prioritizing people considered most at risk. He also committed to a new Trauma Response Network in the city’s public schools, to bring support services directly to students considered at risk of violence. And he wants to fund programs like PeaceBook, which engages young people as violence interruptors.
Johnson’s election sends the message that Chicago residents want a different approach to public safety. Delivery will now depend on his ability to work with city lawmakers—and also on Johnson staying true to his promises.
Photograph of Johnson from Brandon for Chicago Facebook page