By Amara Enyia
Eight million dollars. This pittance characterized what was to be Mayor Rahm Emanuel's comprehensive address on public safety policy, which he delivered on Sept. 22 at Malcolm X College. We should all be insulted.
In a budget of around $9 billion, taxpayers of this city are supposed to stand and applaud that $8 million from a vague neighborhood development fund will go to support economic development projects in city neighborhoods next year.
Let's put this in context. There are at least 10 neighborhoods in this city that are facing severe economic crises: Youth unemployment rates in the double-digits, vacancy rates that rival those for ghost towns, public health crises in the form of lead exposure in homes and in schools. We can go on.
But the mayor wants to be applauded for squirreling away $8 million from what is essentially a deacon benevolence fund set up according to the whim of large developers. Once again, this administration fails to recognize that structural economic investment is the best way to combat crumbling communities and violence — not pennies for development and a few more dollars for community mentoring programs.
Consider this. The city spent $55 million of our taxpayer funds on a single project — a stadium for DePaul University. Just this year, the city fought tooth and nail to be able to spend another $1.2 billion for a museum to be built on prime lakefront property. But $8 million spread around at least 10 struggling neighborhoods that have suffered from disinvestment for decades seems sufficient to City Hall for economic development.
Before his Thursday address, I was willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt and, with an open mind, waited eagerly to hear what he had to say. I had hoped that, after dialing back his condescending rhetoric about 'absent black fathers,' he would be brave enough to do more than tackle the short-term fixes relating to the police department. I had hoped he would set forth a strategy to address violence at the root.
But instead of taking the much harder, longer course of action and calling for Star Wars-like economic investments on the West and South Sides, the mayor doubled down on what seems like an unspoken ideology of our political elites — black and brown neighborhoods, it seems, are only worthy of major investment that's related to crime.
The mayor called for hiring 500 more police officers and 200 more detectives, and for the investment of unspecified millions in technology such as gun-tracing cameras and body cameras. Moreover, the mayor didn't say how all of this police state investment would be paid for.
The mayor talked about the need for stronger gun laws without acknowledging that gun laws are broken by individuals who don't care about gun laws. Unless public policy addresses the mentality of a shooter, the effect of these new laws will be like a thirsty man pouring water into a bottomless bucket.
Truly, I really want the mayor to succeed. If he succeeds, this city succeeds. Success, however, will not come if the mayor doesn't change his old habits of deflecting responsibility, shirking accountability and using emotional gestures as substitutes for substance.
What the mayor and his administration must understand is that by addressing violence at the root, we actually help the police do their jobs. Rooting out violence would mean less potential for violent interactions between the police and civilians. To get to the root, however, we need to do a few things that are harder than calling for more cops or grandstanding on a pile of lunch money.
We need to tackle head-on the corruption in our city's administration, the legal departments and in the police force. We need to be open to new revenue-generating proposals, such as a public bank that could issue millions of loans for small business startups. We need to revamp our TIF program so that we redirect some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it generates to neighborhood development on the West and South Sides. We need to be more equitable and balanced when it comes to neighborhood development.
A comprehensive policy speech setting forth a strategy to change the trajectory of violence in this city would address all of the areas in which our public policy has failed. And if the mayor had given this kind of speech on Thursday night, it may have sounded something like this:
As mayor, I own up to the fact that the culture of our city starts from the top. Lapses in judgment, corruption and mismanagement have created a situation where our police force is unable to operate effectively and where trust in our police and in our administration is at an all-time low. I own that and I will hold myself accountable.
I know that in order for police to do their job, this city's public policy must support the development of our greatest asset — our people. This means that I will increase spending from $4 million to $8 million on lead testing, with a special focus on communities with high lead exposure.
This would ensure that generations of children are not exposed to a toxin that's been linked to violent behavior. I also commit to doubling inspectors from 11 to 22, because there's no reason why our budget for licensing software is higher than our budget to prevent children from being exposed to lead.
I recognize that for far too many students, school has become a soulless testing haven where mismanagement of funds has caused CPS to cut the very programs that cater to human potential, such as arts programs and vocational education programs that can give our young people a vision and hope for their own future.
The CPS central office budget has increased by $33 million during my tenure and is now $233 million even though our student population has declined. I will commit to redirecting $33 million of central office spending back to schools, so that they can hire vocation and arts instructors for our students.
I'll make this the start of an annual allocation of additional funds for the programs that we know not only graduates students at higher rates, but also prepares them for life after high school, thus reducing the number of students engaged in high-risk behavior and crime.
In 2012, I closed mental health clinics, leaving so many of our residents without the services they need. I also know that many community-based organizations that provide those services struggle because of failures of leadership in Springfield, where lawmakers still haven't passed a budget.
I will work hand-in-hand with the mental health movement to craft a common-sense budget that would reinstate much-needed services, as well as work with other mental health providers to create innovative mobile mental health units in communities. I will also direct CPS to expand its budget for school counselors and health professionals.
We have spent nearly half-a-billion dollars on police misconduct cases in the last several years. By fostering transparency and accountability, that money can be redirected to support legitimate policing practices in our communities. It can also fund the expansion of restorative justice initiatives in our communities.
I recognize that trust in my administration has declined because, despite all of my talk of building a trusting relationship, I have directed my corporation counsel to fight FOIA requests and other efforts at transparency. I will end this practice immediately and will support the release of videos and transcripts that shine a light on police misconduct and foster trust in our police and my administration.
And these measures would only be the beginning. They don't cover everything, but at least they set the city on track with specific, measurable goals that can be institutionalized in a budget that actually reflects our city's values.
This is just a snippet of what the mayor's speech could have looked like, but that's not what we got, which just means that we have more work to do. The mayor's address illustrates that transformative change in our communities isn't coming from City Hall. We have to be the change we want to see — for ourselves and for this city.
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