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Clarence Page: Mayor Brandon Johnson’s ‘holistic’ ideas got him elected. Can they be enacted?

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Fred Waller, the former chief of patrol for the Chicago Police Department, was named as the department's interim superintendent by Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on May 3, 2023.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson barely had time to savor his victory before he was facing new questions about an issue that dominated this year’s mayoral race more than any other.

Would he be tough enough on crime?

Crime dominated the mayoral campaign. Chicago has been contending with everything from mass transit robberies to a three-year surge in gun violence that has only begun to wane.

Although some other cities have experienced similar surges with the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago also has long contended with scandals related to police abuses, breakdowns in police-community trust, and the consent decree, a court-ordered overhaul of the Police Department that puts CPD under federal oversight.

The new questions for Johnson, who took office Monday, arose when, as mayor-elect, he issued a statement following unrest on a warm weekend in mid-April that drew crowds of young people and erupted into violence and vandalism on some downtown streets.

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How, many wondered, would Johnson react? He faced a barrage of attacks during his campaign over his support for a more “holistic” approach to public safety. Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former city budget director Paul Vallas, Johnson’s opponent in the runoff, accused him of wanting to defund the police.

“In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend,” he wrote on his social media pages. “It is unacceptable and has no place in our city.”

Fine. That sounded reassuring enough for the skeptics to chew over.

But, then came Johnson’s “However …”

“However,” he continued, “it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

Uh-oh. Johnson apparently could not resist another opportunity to promote his “holistic” approach, even though his sudden shift from law enforcement to sympathy for the disadvantaged sounded like the gang member in “West Side Story” who lyrically pleads, “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.”

Johnson, aided by support from the Chicago Teachers Union, won the runoff with slightly more than half of the total votes against Vallas, who was endorsed by the Chicago police union.

Chicago voters appeared to buy Johnson’s insistence that concern for the “root causes of crime” do not have to be the enemy of support for police and good policing.

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He’s right. Experience, backed up by numerous studies, shows that crime rates tend to go down as cooperation goes up between police and the communities they serve.

But, as valuable as such cooperation can be, Johnson will need more than that to turn the city’s long-running policing problems around.

Among his campaign promises, he wants to add 200 more detectives to a department whose ranks have been overwhelmed by high caseloads.

Johnson also promises to respond to 911 calls with mental health workers instead of police when mental health professionals are warranted. Proposed by Treatment Not Trauma, a community campaign, the idea is to expand a pilot program now operating in some neighborhoods. Still, the city has limited capacity to channel people into treatment who need it.

Johnson has promised to reopen six mental health clinics closed in 2012, although that also will require more funding and more mental health workers to fill a current shortage.

Lastly, Johnson has promised to fully fund Chicago’s Office of Domestic Violence, although he has not made a specific dollar pledge. The Network, which advocates against domestic violence, has called for the city to commit $50 million per year.

Stay tuned. Johnson’s victory marks a big win against what he calls the “false choice” of “lock ’em up” versus a “holistic” approach to crime-fighting. For him, the holistic approach has won. Now we’ll see how he does in the minefields of the City Council to get his reforms funded.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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