Chicago, IL – The city of Chicago has dumped millions into new programs aimed at combating gun violence with yard work and neighborhood beautification projects.
Despite a budget shortfall of $1 billion – which Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blamed as the cause for a city-wide hiring freeze – city leaders earmarked a whopping $7.4 million towards programs that focus on making crime-ridden areas of the city more visually appealing, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
As of Friday, 372 people have been murdered in Chicago in 2019 alone, according to the paper.
Over 330 of those deaths were caused by shootings.
Proponents of the projects noted that research in other cities has revealed a decrease in violent crime in areas where similar projects were undertaken.
“There is something about physical space that signals whether or not this is an area where crime can happen,” University of Michigan assistant professor Justin Heinze told the Chicago Sun-Times. “This literature goes way back into the 1970s, and there’s a lot of evidence to support it.”
Researchers concluded that the beautification efforts signaled to criminals that the area was being watched, and that eliminating abandoned vehicles and buildings removed places for them to hide illegal contraband.
In recent months, Lightfoot unveiled a $250,000 pilot program called “Grounds for Peace,” which targeted 50 vacant lots to be converted into gardens, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
The work is being carried out by dozens of at-risk men through a partnership with READI Chicago.
Another nonprofit group, Urban Growers Collective, will oversee the projects and the workers’ training.
“This is a really progressive thing for a city to spearhead,” Urban Growers Collective co-founder Erika Allen told the Chicago Sun-Times. “These guys are really trying. And, in the end, they’ll walk away having done something that impacts everybody in a positive way.”
But some experts, including Lincoln Institute for Land Policy representative Alan Mallach, warned that beautification projects are not a “magic bullet,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
“If you’re going to be serious about trying to use this as a way to address gun violence, it’s got to be part of the strategy, not the whole thing,” Mallach stressed.
Although the city found millions of dollars to pour into the beautification projects, the same can’t be said for hiring new police officers.
“With Chicago facing one of the largest budgetary gaps in recent history, these measures are just one part of a broader approach we must take to restore our finances and put Chicago on a path to a stronger, more secure future,” City of Chicago Budget Director Susie Park said in a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times in August.
“The hiring freeze, in effect until further notice, will allow the Budget Office to take a hard look at our programs, services and operational needs to determine our spending priorities for 2020,” Park said.
The decision to extend the hiring freeze to include the Chicago police was significant because it was the exact opposite of what the department has been trying to achieve for the last few years, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
In 2016, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a two-year plan to add more than 1,000 officers to the Chicago Police Department in response to the rise in homicides and violent crime in the city.
Right now, Chicago has 13,400 sworn officers on the streets plus “dozens of additional sergeants and detectives,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
The class of recruits that graduated from the police academy in August was the last for the time being under the hiring freeze.
The city has cancelled the recruit class that was scheduled to begin in September, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
The budget director said that the city would make “priority positions that directly affect the health and safety” of Chicago residents exempt from the hiring freeze.
The mayor’s office tried to assure residents that their safety would not be affected by Lightfoot’s decision, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
“This exemption will ensure departments like police, fire and aviation remain staffed and prepared for seasonal work and will ensure basic services remain in place for all communities,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “The city will work to ensure the hiring freeze does not impact police/patrol coverage and to ensure the freeze doesn’t limit the number of personnel devoted to solving crimes.”
The mayor, who was headed out of town on vacation right after the hiring freeze was announced, was said to be laying the groundwork for another round of tax increases for the residents of Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Lightfoot’s vacation with her wife and daughter to Maine was in itself controversial after she ordered the city’s police officials to cancel their summer travel plans in light of the crime emergency on the city streets.
When she found out an official had taken a pre-planned vacation anyway, she lambasted him in the media.
“That would be incredibly disappointing to me if that happened because I gave a very specific directive that no exempt should be taking vacation during the summer,” Lightfoot said at the time. “So, if that happened, that’ll be something that we have to have a serious conversation about.”
“The exempts have to set the example,” she declared. “And the example of doing something the mayor has directed them not to do is highly problematic.”
While visiting a police strategic command center on Aug. 15, Lightfoot discussed the personal sacrifices she makes as a public servant.
“People tell me all the time to ‘oh you’re so busy and you should take time off,’ [but] it’s really important for me to be visible,” she claimed.
Lightfoot departed on her week-long vacation just days later, even though 22 people were wounded and three were murdered in a series of shootings across the city the weekend prior.