Outgoing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot used a weekly meeting with police leaders Tuesday to demand answers for why officers seemingly struggled to control crowds of young people who gathered downtown over the weekend, damaging vehicles and leading to the circulation of viral videos of the chaos, sources familiar with the situation said.
The mayhem in the city’s tourism district late Saturday sparked renewed concern about the Chicago Police Department’s ability to handle crowds of teens and young adults who were captured on cellphone cameras blocking traffic and jumping atop a CTA bus.
Aldermen labeled the response “inadequate,” particularly given the warm weather and earlier impromptu youth gatherings including at 31st Street Beach.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward stretches into downtown’s Streeterville neighborhood, was particularly troubled by ongoing street violence.
“The fact that it happened repeatedly, without any apparent adjustment in the police tactical response, it just indicates a lack of engagement from the superintendent and the deputy chiefs,” Hopkins said.
This weekend may have marked the first time many rookie officers in a younger police force confronted a large gathering, the alderman said. “There was so much confusion,” he said. “I heard a lot of evidence of a lack of command on the ground … and we were short-staffed too.”
Large youth gatherings in the downtown area have remained a vexing problem for police officials for the last decade. Organized over social media, typically during the warm summer months, the crowds of teens have sometimes turned violent.
It will now fall to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson to attempt to quell the problem. Johnson was elected without the support of the city’s largest police union, winning a narrow victory over Paul Vallas, who ran on a tough-on-crime platform.
Last year the city grappled with an event that many thought had brought the issue of such teen gatherings to a head.
Eleven months ago, dozens of youths gathered near Cloud Gate, the sculpture in Millennium Park known as The Bean. A fight broke out and 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was fatally shot. A 17-year-old boy was later charged in the shooting, and his criminal case remains pending in Cook County Circuit Court.
After Holliday was killed, Lightfoot imposed a curfew at Millennium Park that forbade unaccompanied minors from entering the park after 6 p.m. That curfew remains in effect and police were checking bags of park entrants. Some police sources said an increased downtown presence was expected in the coming weeks.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said it is incumbent on the new City Council and the mayor-elect to find ways to prevent teen violence and confrontations. But a curfew is not the answer, he said.
“Teen curfew has little to no impact, and instead, it can lead to more violence,” Ramirez-Rosa said
Critics of the Millennium Park curfew have said the inability for teens to gather in spaces that are supposed to be safe can lead to more issues in the neighborhoods they live in.
The curfew last year appeared to slow the momentum of the gatherings, but the unusually warm weekend weather brought more young people to the center of Chicago apparently looking to challenge police, signaling the problem is not going away.
The officers who responded late Saturday focused on containing the crowd of hundreds instead of moving into the fray, Hopkins said. The strategy allowed the gathering to continue, he added.
A Walgreens was looted, a break-in was attempted at the Art Institute, two Chicago Transit Authority buses were attacked, the windows and windshields of a number of motorists were broken, a couple was beaten and robbed, a police officer suffered a broken bone, another officer was mobbed and had his radio stolen and two teens were shot, Hopkins said.
“It was one thing after another. And the police response just was inadequate,” he said.
Hopkins said the new superintendent Johnson will choose needs to have strong plans to prevent gatherings from getting out of control and bring unruly gatherings back to order.
As a matter of course, the CPD monitors activity across social media platforms, keeping an eye out for large-scale gatherings. With last weekend’s unseasonably warm temperatures, youths encouraged each other to meet downtown Saturday.
However, several high-ranking police officials — those typically responsible for the downtown area — were unavailable to take command as the hundreds of teens roamed the Loop, according to one CPD supervisor who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two leaders, including Area 3 Deputy Chief Jill Stevens, were on furlough, and the captain of the Central District, was on vacation, according to the CPD supervisor.
Deputy Chief Matt Cline was assigned as the department’s street deputy on Saturday, and he was eventually summoned downtown to lead the department’s response, the supervisor said. Before Cline’s arrival, no officers downtown held a rank above lieutenant, which prohibited them from requesting more officers to assist, the source said.
Around 9 p.m., a 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy were shot in the right arm and left leg, respectively, as they “were standing in a crowd of people” near Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, according to police. No one was taken into custody in connection with the shooting, but the Police Department later said that nine adults and six juveniles were arrested.
“The reckless, disruptive and violent behavior that was seen downtown this past weekend will not be tolerated,” the CPD said in a statement issued Monday evening. “We encourage our young people to be safe and responsible as they enjoy their weekends, but anyone engaged in criminal activity will be arrested and held accountable.”
The downtown mayhem rattled a business community still recovering in many ways from closures tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lynn Osmond, president of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism office, sent an email assuring “partners” that CPD “provided assurances that they will be putting forward additional resources in response to the incidents this weekend.”
“We all know that the national perception of Chicago does not match the reality — we are a spectacular, beautiful city that is enjoyed safely every day by millions of locals and visitors,” Osmond wrote. “At the same time, along with many of our peer cities across the country, we continue to face very serious public safety challenges that must be addressed.”
Johnson was scheduled to meet with business leaders Monday, though he has been largely silent on specific ways he might react and prevent the situation from recurring. He issued a statement in the wake of the problematic youth gathering.
“In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend. It is unacceptable and has no place in our city,” Johnson said. “However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”
Hopkins is among those looking for quick solutions and a stronger police response next time.
He pointed to the 2012 NATO summit, when police spent months planning and practicing tactics for expected protests. Chicago again needs a comprehensive plan paired with unclouded communication and specific training, he said.
“This is a top priority, because the department right now is in some disarray,” Hopkins said.
Chicago Tribune’s Laura Rodriguez Presa and Gregory Pratt contributed.
©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.