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Cook County Board considers nonbinding proposal to shift money from ‘failed and racist’ policing, incarceration systems

Saturday, July 04, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

Growing up on the Far South Side, Tanya Watkins shrank at the sight of police officers.

“I was always taught that you run,” Watkins, 43, said. “Looking at how my friends and people around me and myself were brutalized by officers, cursed out, disrespected with absolutely no recourse … to this day I’m terrified of police.”

Watkins, who is Black, said the gulf between law enforcement and her neighbors in the London Towne Houses housing cooperative was formative in her decision to become a community organizer in the fight against police brutality. The worldwide protests that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd were long overdue in her eyes.

She was nonetheless surprised at the momentum behind a Cook County board resolution to “redirect money from the failed and racist systems of policing, criminalization and incarceration” into services such as housing and health care. The nonbinding resolution was introduced by Commissioner Brandon Johnson and co-sponsored by all but a handful of the 17 commissioners.

Despite having a “tremendous amount of skepticism” for politicians and their promises, Watkins said it was time her government representatives set a precedent in calling for defunding the criminal justice system.

“All over the country, Black people are being murdered in cold blood by police,” Watkins said. “Now thousands of people are recognizing that this is a real issue, that this is not imagined.”

While a nod to the “defund police” movement that has taken hold following Floyd’s death, the resolution, which the board is expected to consider at its July 30 meeting, is largely symbolic since the county has no direct control over municipal police department budgets. In addition, the resolution does not specify how much money would be redirected from law enforcement.

But the board does control the budgets for the county’s courts system and sheriff’s office, so the resolution could have weight in future spending plans. And board President Toni Preckwinkle has said law enforcement funding should be reallocated to social services, a view first reported in the Chicago Sun-Times.

It’s a position that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker have not backed. Chicago has drawn attention for becoming the biggest U.S. city that hasn’t promised to reallocate money from its Police Department, with city officials reluctant to shrink law enforcement amid a continuing stream of shootings and murders.

Johnson, the sponsor of the county resolution, had to pause every few seconds when discussing Floyd’s death.

“I was horrified. Angry. Really angry,” Johnson told the Tribune. “I felt sorry. And a little impaired. You never get used to anything like that. Ever. And I wanted to destroy every bit of a system that would permit such a heinous crime.”

Johnson grew up in Elgin during the 1990s and saw friends and classmates make poor choices despite a tough-on-crime approach that he said led to a “growing police state.”

An Austin neighborhood resident for the past decade, Johnson, who is Black, said he feels wary when police are outside his home and has been stopped multiple times in cases of mistaken identity.

“The police state since its inception has always been a tool of violence against Black people,” Johnson said, who made note of the long history of police torture under disgraced Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

“The only natural response when you’re being choked is to fight for air. And that’s all we’re doing right now is we’re just fighting for air. We just want to breathe,” he said.

More than 20% of Cook County’s $6.2 billion budget this year goes toward public safety, the second-highest expenditure following the health fund.

That public safety fund includes the courts system and the sheriff’s office, which runs Cook County Jail, polices unincorporated Cook County and fills in for cash-strapped suburban agencies.

Since Tom Dart became Cook County sheriff in 2007, his office’s budget has grown by more than one-quarter, adjusted for inflation, despite the jail population dwindling by more than half.

However, Dart said he has reduced staff by about 800, mostly by cutting the number of deputies and correctional officers, and expanded programming for mental health and drug abuse treatment.

Although he said he is “ecstatic” about nationwide discussions to reform policing, Dart said in an interview that he does not support defunding his office.

He also said his office’s need for funding has actually grown as it has added responsibilities for social issues no longer handled by other government entities — pointing specifically to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to close half the city’s mental health clinics in 2012.

“If people target our budget just because that’s sort of the thing to do these days, it would actually be cutting back the one entity that has been picking up all the pieces of these very things they’re talking about,” Dart said. “So that’s where it gets a little bit strange for me.”

Preckwinkle said in an interview she was “grateful” to see Johnson’s resolution and believes it is better intended to guide conversations around defunding the incarceration system specifically — a platform that protesters gathering weekly outside Cook County Jail are demanding.

“The tremendous investments we make are not in the relatively modest sheriff’s police, they’re in the jail,” Preckwinkle said. “We have to try to move resources to community-based organizations that are doing the important work of keeping people out of the jail.”

While highlighting that the jail population is disproportionately Black and Latino, Preckwinkle said, “There’s a lot of talk about endemic racism in this country at this moment in time, and no place is that endemic racism clearer than what happens in our criminal justice system.”

She added the language in Johnson’s resolution was still “pretty broad in scope” and needs to be deliberated by the board’s criminal justice committee before the July vote.

Republican Commissioner Sean Morrison said he was staunchly against Johnson’s resolution, telling the Tribune he would vote against the resolution unless the phrasing was rewritten.

“I’m absolutely not discounting the legitimate issue at hand, the seriousness, especially given the recent tragedies regarding law enforcement within minority communities,” Morrison said. “As for the resolution itself, the insidious language used to describe law enforcement I find completely unacceptable.”

Some say that while they have seen police behavior outlined in Johnson’s resolution, they aren’t convinced defunding is the answer.

Stringer Harris, a 39-year-old Black community activist based in Chicago and the south suburbs, said he has spent years responding to shootings, of consoling grieving mothers amid yellow police tape and blue lights. In his opinion, the policing system needs to be reformed, not defunded.

Harris wants more rigorous training for police officers, he said, as well as cops carrying their own liability insurance rather than being indemnified by the city.

I think what people take out of context is the word ‘defund’ instead of saying the word reform,” Harris said. “I think we want accountability. We want training.”

Watkins said she isn’t sure police reform is possible. About a month ago, she said, orange-and-white traffic barriers blocked her way as she drove on South Halsted Street in south suburban Homewood.

Watkins braced herself and decided to ask a nearby police officer, whose department she could not discern, for directions.

“Shut the f--- up and keep moving!” the cop responded, according to Watkins. She pulled over and sobbed into her steering wheel.

“Maybe now that I’m older, or maybe they can look at me and tell that I’m a mom and I’m this and that, but no,” Watkins said, “None of that matters when you’re Black. And that’s an issue, that we are seen as less than human.”

CONTACT

Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.



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