As thousands of Chicagoans took to the streets during 2020′s nationwide racial reckoning on policing, one word captured the fury of that summer: “Defund.”
Following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who gasped “I can’t breathe” as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, the rallying cry was shouted by activists and scribbled on cardboard signs across Chicago. Though it was largely rebuffed by the bulk of the city’s political class, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, at least one sympathizer in local government emerged: Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is vying to unseat her in the Feb. 28 election.
Less than a month after Floyd’s death, the county commissioner from the West Side introduced a nonbinding resolution calling for the county to “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement.” The “Justice for Black Lives” resolution was symbolic, but it overwhelmingly passed that July.
“A hundred years from now … the question will be, did we do everything in our power to stand up to systemic racism? Or did we flinch?” Johnson said as he addressed fellow commissioners before the vote. “This will give the county commissioners a road map for taking millions of waste spent on incarceration and policing and reinvesting it.”
But two years later, as Johnson declared his candidacy for Chicago mayor and his campaign has surged in recent weeks, the 46-year-old who is championed by many progressives has sounded less strident on the issue of defunding the police. That shift comes amid a much different political climate, where the momentum for change has coincided with fears over a recent surge in crime.
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Asked at a Monday campaign stop if he would reduce the $1.94 billion Chicago Police Department budget, Johnson did not say. Nor would he address his past comments on the defund movement. Instead, he implored reporters to “ask better questions,” such as what actually makes communities safer.
“What I’m saying is that we’re going to spend our money smart,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’m saying, all right. Look, I know the narrative out there about me and our movement. I get it. I do. People want to reduce our pain to a hashtag.”
One of the earliest comments Lightfoot made about the protests targeting police budgets was to dismiss the calls as a “hashtag” and a mere “slogan.”
“I will never support defunding the police,” Lightfoot said in the documentary “City So Real,” which aired in the fall of 2020, following the summer wave of protests. “I don’t think it’s a binary choice. It’s not either: fund the police, or fund resources. We have to do both.”
The mayor argued that, given the concentration of violence in Chicago’s poorest communities, siphoning police funds from them would send a message that “public safety is only a commodity that’s available for the wealthy.”
“In those communities that are most plagued by violence, I’m not hearing them talk about ‘defund’ the police,” Lightfoot said. “They want more police resources.”
The goal of those who support defunding police is to divest from law enforcement budgets and reallocate those funds to nonpolicing community investments aimed at addressing crime’s root causes.
There is no one consensus among the largely decentralized network of defund activists on how or how much police budgets should be reinvested. Some organizers want to scale back funds as a precursor to abolishing the institution of policing entirely. Other approaches include more modest cuts or strategically removing certain duties from the scope of policing, such as responding to mental health crises.
Chicago was the largest American city to not take up a proposal to reallocate law enforcement funding in the wake of Floyd’s death, though Lightfoot still weathered accusations that she did just that because her 2021 budget included a 3.6% cut to the Police Department. However, that reduction was attributed to a massive fiscal deficit stemming from the pandemic, and the funding was more than restored the next year. Some of the “no” votes came from progressive aldermen who would not budge on demands to defund the police.
Johnson added to the censure. In a December 2020 appearance on WCPT 820′s “The Santita Jackson Show,” he criticized the mayor as well as former President Barack Obama, for his recent characterization of the defund movement as a “snappy slogan.”
“I don’t look at it as a slogan,” Johnson said. “It’s an actual real political goal.”
The Lightfoot campaign recently repurposed that segment for an ad, to which Johnson’s team hit back in a statement that Lightfoot is “desperately on the attack with old clips” and that “Brandon Johnson’s plan for public safety includes new investments to make our city safer and stronger — not cuts to the CPD.”
That was Johnson’s first public commitment to maintain the Police Department budget — a departure from his 2020 ambitions.
“It was 87% that say, ‘Yeah, defund,’” Johnson said in October 2020, citing a city budget survey that showed 87% of 38,000 respondents supported reallocating Chicago police funds. “Look, she’s on the wrong side of history. … And the other side of the building has to come to their own reckoning.”
Johnson’s campaign on Wednesday issued a statement renewing his commitment to not cut Chicago police spending.
“Brandon’s plan for public safety is a comprehensive, wide-ranging policy that gets smart on crime by maintaining the current CPD budget while making the department more efficient and providing new investments in additional public safety initiatives outside of the police department, including new teams of non-personnel first responders for mental health crisis calls,” spokesman Ronnie Reese wrote.
As for the rest of the mayoral candidates, all but community activist Ja’Mal Green have opposed reducing Chicago Police Department spending at this point.
The Cook County Board does not control municipal police budgets such as Chicago’s — only the purse strings of the Cook County sheriff’s office, which runs the county jail, one of the largest correctional facilities in the U.S., as well as a police force of about 500.
That sheriff’s budget was deemed a target of Johnson and grassroots organizers in support of defunding when Cook County began budget negotiations in the fall of 2020, but he did not detail how much funding he wanted diverted or how. Instead, he broadly said at the time, “Reducing the sheriff’s budget is a case that I believe that we want,” adding: “There is no number big enough.”
The sheriff’s office ended up seeing a cut of 4.1%, its first reduction after multiple consecutive years of increases. But whether that was the result of an intentional move to defund or a response to massive budget woes brought on by the pandemic depends on who you ask. Sheriff Tom Dart has surmised it was “a little of both,” while Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle insisted any “fluctuation” in the sheriff’s budget was unrelated.
Whatever the reason, the sheriff’s budget more than recouped its 2021 cut the next year and now has a record-high $675 million allocation. Johnson voted for both of the last two budgets.
During debate on this year’s budget, Johnson did take issue with setting aside $11.4 million to lease a helicopter and “associated equipment” for the sheriff and voted against sending the sheriff $275,000 to embed two social workers in Cook County’s 911 dispatch center for mental health call responses, saying he was having a “tough time” supporting a measure that used a system his constituents “didn’t really trust.”
Johnson also has acknowledged that the county “could have been much bolder and stronger in that moment” after the Tribune reported in 2021 that most of the county’s COVID-19 stimulus funds was spent on the sheriff’s office. But he also blamed Lightfoot and Chicago police Superintendent David Brown because their “approach to arrest people and to incarcerate” jacked up the jail population and, thus, the sheriff’s labor expenditures.
“Of course that impacts our budget,” Johnson said in February 2021. “If the vast majority of detainees are coming from the city of Chicago, and you have an administration in the city of Chicago that is committed to a failed, racist system of incarceration, that infrastructure is really reflecting the poor policies that are being pushed.”
Perhaps the most debated aspect of “defund the police” is its name. Starting in 2020, Republican candidates sought to weaponize the word against Democratic opponents, regardless of their actual positions on police spending. Eventually, “defund” became a catchall term among conservatives seeking to evoke an image of radical lawlessness.
In Chicago’s 2023 municipal election, Democrats running for mayor, alderman and other positions also are raising the specter of “defund” in the hopes of painting progressive rivals as soft on crime.
Simon Balto, an assistant history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the phrase has always been obvious “red meat” for the “law and order” crowd, but that liberals have grown scared of it as well.
“People in the mayoral race right now are just throwing (defund) back and forth at each other,” said Balto, who has studied race and policing in Chicago. “They’re doing that because they made a political calculation that being associated with that slogan is sort of political suicide.”
Indeed, Johnson has not uttered the word “defund” during the last stretch before the February election. He has instead opted to center themes associated with the movement while stopping short of endorsing or rejecting the approach.
That makes Johnson’s desired size for the total Chicago Police Department budget hard to pin down.
In a September progressive candidates forum, Johnson was quick to say “absolutely yes” when asked if he will commit to not raising Chicago police funds “any further.” But his statement last week in response to Lightfoot’s ad against him said his safety plan includes “new investments … not cuts to the CPD.”
Asked this week to clarify if he would adjust the Police Department’s $1.94 billion allocation, Johnson evaded the question. He instead pointed out that his safety plan calls for ensuring $150 million in police funds would “be reallocated” by streamlining the amount of department supervisors. He did not answer whether that money would be reinvested within the department or taken out of its budget, but his campaign confirmed Wednesday the plan “reinvests (the $150 million) within the CPD.”
“We’re reallocating the resources,” Johnson said. “That’s the same position that I said with the Justice for Black Lives resolution. It’s the same thing.”
Also, when asked how as mayor he would handle the 1,500 police officer vacancies, Johnson has not committed to filling them with new officers or eliminating the line items from the budget. But he said rivals who want to fill those openings to combat crime are “going to fail” at attracting enough recruits, and he chastised those opponents, saying: “When it comes to public safety, they have two words: more cops.”
As for the activists on the ground, Johnson has remained their guy. Multiple Chicago organizers who spoke with the Tribune expressed confidence that should he become mayor, Johnson will embrace the movement to reallocate police funding.
“We can do more with getting Brandon into office than we can with him not being in office, and I understand that also politics is a tactical game,” April Friendly, a police abolitionist who is the organizing director of Southeast Environmental Task Force, said. “If he uses some other language to communicate it, I’m not worried about that.”