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Activists ‘disappointed and not surprised’ after $181.7M of Cook County’s coronavirus relief funding spent on reimbursing sheriff’s office payroll

Thursday, February 25, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

Over the past 11 months of the pandemic, Cook County directed more than 40% of its federal relief money toward labor costs for the sheriff’s office, drawing alarm from Black activists who have renewed calls to reallocate law enforcement spending since the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

The county was granted more than $428.5 million in April under the federal coronavirus relief bill. About $181.7 million was expensed by the Cook County sheriff’s office for direct “labor costs” such as payroll and benefits, according to a Jan. 31 report posted on the county website.

The budget for the sheriff’s office, which runs Cook County Jail, the electronic monitoring of detainees and a small police force, has long been a target for local activists who say taxpayer dollars for a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates Black people should instead be invested in housing, health care, transportation and other initiatives. Those calls, along with similar demands centered on the Chicago police budget, were revived last May after Floyd, a Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.

County officials have nodded to that movement, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle saying last year she supports spending less on law enforcement. In July, the Board of Commissioners voted overwhelmingly to pass the nonbinding “Justice for Black Lives” resolution to divert money from policing and incarceration into other social services.

Preckwinkle’s chief financial officer, Ammar Rizki, said despite the flow of federal coronavirus relief money to the sheriff’s office, the commitment made under the resolution stands. But some Black activists said the county’s promise already has been broken.

“It’s just really disappointing that with a Black county president and also a Black woman mayor, we still can’t get the actual recovery from this pandemic that Black folks need and deserve,” said Amika Tendaji, executive director of Black Lives Matter Chicago. “I am most disappointed and not surprised. It’s an old wound.”

Cook County budget Director Annette Guzman said she wants to “pull in the same direction” as community members such as Tendaji, rather than “fighting over things that are misrepresented.”

“This is one part of a whole panoply of things the county did in response to COVID-19 that really went to making sure that our residents were taken care of and secure during a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Guzman said. “You can’t look at things in isolation. You’ve got to look at them in total.”

On the city side, $281.5 million in coronavirus relief money was spent on Chicago police’s payroll costs — sparking controversy from progressive aldermen that Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last week was “just dumb.” She said the city “took advantage” of the federal money to reimburse COVID-19-related expenses rather than have it fall on the city’s taxpayers.

Rizki noted that the county put $40 million from its own coffers toward economic development and restorative justice programs under Preckwinkle’s 2021 budget. But he said the total investment in initiatives that activists have pushed for actually is about $100 million when considering the additional funding for Cook County Health, which runs the safety-net hospitals Stroger and Provident, as well as upcoming transportation revamps under Preckwinkle’s Fair Transit South Cook pilot program.

“We definitely encourage folks like this executive director (Tendaji) to be able to really continue to work with us and help us and challenge us to be able to make sure that we are thinking about this the right way,” Rizki said. “Advocates and residents at the end of the day really come into play to ensure that we’re doing this and thinking about this very collaboratively. We think we have. We would definitely like to do more.”

Tendaji said rather than funneling money to an agency that serves to “lock Black people up,” the county should have funded more mental health services amid a surge in Black suicides in Cook County last year. Her criticism was echoed by other activist groups that spoke to the Tribune, including The People’s Lobby, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, and GoodKids MadCity.

“What do we really need the sheriff’s department that much for in a pandemic?” Tendaji said. “Politicians who are saying that they uphold Black lives and Black Lives Matter need to start putting their work where it matters.”

Cook County sheriff’s spokesman Matt Walberg wrote in a statement that the added costs came as the sheriff’s office “was, and continues to be, on the front line of managing COVID.” He wrote that about $176 million of the county’s coronavirus relief funding was used to reimburse the salaries of staff within the sheriff’s office’s Department of Corrections, electronic monitoring unit and police department.

The sheriff’s office also requested and received an additional $5.6 million in coronavirus relief money to cover “hazard pay,” which is extra compensation for front-line work during the pandemic, for employees in quarantine units, the kitchen, laundry rooms, transportation and the personal protection equipment team at the jail, Walberg wrote. Then $8.3 million in nonlabor costs was used to pay for food services, the rise in electronic monitoring and PPE expenses.

Guzman and Rizki have authorization under an emergency resolution passed by the Board of Commissioners in the spring to move around coronavirus relief funding without direct approval from the board. They said the sheriff’s office received a vast portion of it because employees needed it to socially distance the jail on top of keeping up with an explosion in the electronic monitoring population, which increased from an average of 2,219 in 2019 to a 3,020 average last year. The current population is over 3,600.

“They fundamentally changed how they operated, and they had to do way more than they normally do to operate their jail in order to keep it safe for themselves and their employees but also for the detainees,” Guzman said about the sheriff’s office. “That’s why they got such a large chunk of the funding.”

That doesn’t square with April Friendly, an organizer with The People’s Lobby that was part of the coalition of activists calling to defund the sheriff’s office by $157 million. She said if coronavirus mitigations were so important and costly in the jail, the county should have “let the people go.”

“The resolution was symbolic,” Friendly said about the Justice for Black Lives measure. “Symbolism does not make change. It does not create change. … This reality is really why we need to continue to fight for the people.”

The commissioner behind the July resolution, Brandon Johnson, D-Chicago, said he was “not surprised” by the allocation toward the sheriff’s office payroll, but he believes some of the blame should be shouldered by Lightfoot and her chosen Chicago police superintendent, David Brown, because many detainees entering the jail were arrested in the city.

Meanwhile, community organizers disappointed with the federal coronavirus relief money breakdown were left to acknowledge that they have a long road ahead of them if they wish to shrink law enforcement budgets.

“This is what the criminal justice system does: it eats at our finances, like a beast,” said Tanya Watkins, executive director of SOUL. “It takes so much away.”

Alice Yin

Chicago Tribune
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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