Under pressure to address skyrocketing street crime last summer, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a $1 million reward program for people who report illegal guns.
“I want you to know that I recognize that people are scared. People all over the city. This is the topic of conversation,” Lightfoot said as she announced the fund’s creation in July 2021. “Gun violence is holding us back from realizing our individual potential and our potential and greatness as a city.”
In the year since Lightfoot announced the initiative, however, the city has only paid out $10,395 to tipsters, according to the police department. The program has generated criticism that it was poorly thought out and executed. It also illustrates how Lightfoot has at times addressed violent crime and deflected criticism with headline-generating ideas that falter.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who considered running for mayor and leads a nonprofit aimed at violence prevention, this week told the Tribune the $1 million program was flawed. The amount of guns on the street are a problem, Duncan said, but the deeper issue is a failure by police to arrest and hold shooters accountable. The vast majority of shooters don’t get charged, Duncan said, which helps give rise to retaliatory violence.
“Strategies that aren’t thought out, that aren’t thoughtful, that aren’t implemented, that’s almost like the worst possible scenario. This stuff is really hard, it’s complex, but headlines and P.R. don’t keep people alive,” Duncan said in an interview. “The fact that this is literally a matter of life and death and the fact we are losing so many lives is untenable. This is the crisis facing our city.”
The mayor’s office defended the gun tip line as merely one piece of a multipronged anti-violence effort that includes gun buybacks, partnerships with prevention groups, and community and social service investment.
“The City believes that our gun-tip line, participating in gun buyback and gun turn-in programs are worthwhile endeavors as we take steps to tackle the current challenges in public safety,” a Lightfoot spokesman said in a written statement. “We know that our residents deserve a government that will do everything in their power to prevent violence.”
The roughly 800 homicides that occurred last year in Chicago marked the highest death toll from gun violence in the city since the mid-1990s. There were about 4,300 shootings in Chicago last year, a massive jump from 2018 when there were approximately 2,800 people shot.
Through Sunday, Chicago police recorded 411 homicides so far this year, a 17% drop from the 495 homicides during the same time in 2021, according to official police statistics. The number of shooting victims — including people killed or injured by gunfire — has dropped by 19% during that period, with 2,163 through Sunday compared to 2,676 last year, the statistics show.
At news conferences on crime, Lightfoot frequently notes the city has recorded fewer shootings and homicides this year and calls it good progress, though she adds that the city needs to do more.
The statement from her office Wednesday reiterated the drop in gun crime over last year and said Chicago police have removed nearly 8,000 guns from circulation and made 3,700 gun-related arrests, though the vast majority of those were unrelated to the tip line.
Following the mayor’s initial $1 million pledge for gun tip rewards last summer, the Chicago Police Department announced details of the new gun trafficking and homicide tip line, offering up to $3,000 for tips leading to someone being charged with buying or selling 10 or more guns, and up to $5,000 if the person is convicted. Homicide tips pay up to $15,000.
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The program was “specifically created to provide residents with a vehicle to provide tips anonymously related to the highest-level crimes: homicides and gun trafficking, and ultimately, make attempts to bring individuals to justice and seize illegal weapons,” the mayor’s office said in its Wednesday statement.
The city announced in May it had handed out its first reward under the program, for $10,000, Fox 32 reported.
Although some critical categories of gun violence are down from last year, carjackings have risen 6.7%, with 1,060 recorded in Chicago this year as of Sunday, compared to 933 during the same time last year, the statistics show. Violence has also spiked downtown, raising concerns about the city’s economic engine.
The general perception of high crime remains an ongoing political issue for Lightfoot as she campaigns for a second term.
So far, nearly all the seven candidates who’ve announced they’re challenging Lightfoot in next year’s election have pledged to fire her handpicked police superintendent, David Brown, which Lightfoot has dismissed out of hand. Several candidates and law enforcement organizations have also called for restrictions on officers to be loosened — an idea often expressed as, “Let police be police.”
But a move in that direction could upend a delicate balance between giving cops the support they need and reforming a long-troubled department. Its many dark chapters include a police torture ring led by Cmdr. Jon Burge, dozens of wrongful convictions tied to allegedly crooked detectives and the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, by police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
Nationally, the ongoing debate over law enforcement tactics and crime has been reflected in other big cities such as New York, where retired police captain-turned-politician Eric Adams was elected mayor after campaigning on restoring public safety. San Francisco voters this summer recalled a district attorney who has been criticized for progressive policies.
Lightfoot, for her part, has walked a fine line on crime and policing. She has acknowledged the public’s concern about shootings while touting 2022 s reductions in gun violence. Lightfoot has also frequently criticized the Cook County court system for being too lenient on violent criminals and recently made the extraordinary declaration that anyone charged with a violent crime in Chicago is guilty and should be held without bail.
But Lightfoot, who ran in 2019 on police accountability as the former president of the Chicago Police Board, which deals with serious officer discipline, has also pushed back on those who are advocating looser rules. Meanwhile, the mayor has repeatedly tried to show initiative on anti-crime measures, as she did with her $1 million tip line.
Last September, for instance, as murders and shootings remained high, Lightfoot announced what she called the Victims’ Justice Ordinance, which would allow the city to sue gang members and attempt to seize their assets.
But in the months that followed, Lightfoot failed to generate enough support from the City Council and quietly shelved the idea. That legislation generated criticism from all sides of the political aisle and cries of political opportunism. Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara previously blasted the plan as a “waste of everyone’s time to pretend she is doing something of substance” while civil rights lawyers argued the city would end up violating people’s civil rights and seizing property from grandmas who aren’t involved in gang life, creating more problems down the road.
Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed.
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