Public Safety Without Police

Building Alternatives to Policing from Chicago’s 33rd Ward

Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez interviewed by brian bean

In the wake of the summer antiracist uprising, one Chicago alderperson is forging ahead with practical alternatives to policing. Ald. Rossana Rodriguez discusses the progress and challenges of defunding the police and imagining a different kind of public safety.

The recent uprising around the country against racism and police violence has brought forth the slogan of defunding the police as one of its organic demands. The first question I want to ask is about the council order that you introduced in September, which, if passed in city council, would reappropriate money from the Chicago Police Department to create the Chicago Crisis Response and Care System,a public mental health program with licensed social workers that would respond to mental health crises. Why have you taken that particular angle in pursuing defunding the police, why is that important, and how do you see this council order connecting to larger efforts to defund the police?

The council order would instruct the Department of Public Health, the Office of Emergency Management, and the Budget Director of the city of Chicago to figure out what it will take to create a crisis response system that is not based in law enforcement, which is very important. It would operate out of Chicago’s network of public mental health clinics. That is the vision. While we don’t have an amount of money yet, when we first calculated, we thought it could cost around $150 million per year, but it is really hard for us to be able to estimate those costs because there are a lot of operational issues that we can’t anticipate. So we need those commissioners to be able to calculate that for us. But whatever the sticker price, we know that the money is there for it because the budget of the Chicago Police Department is almost $1.8 billion. 

When I got elected, one of the main platform points we were pushing for was to create an alternative view of what it means to feel safe in the city, what public safety really means. I had these conversations at people’s doors so many times because we have been conditioned to believe that “police” equals “public safety,” that they are its symbol. You say public safety and what people imagine is a police officer.

But in practice what we have seen is the opposite. A lot of people in our communities feel threatened by police and suffer so much police brutality, mostly communities of color. We know that the city of Chicago has an awful history of misconduct, torture, and killings. We have also had the consent decree and multiple efforts to reform the police department. This is a process that is going way too slow and I don’t see a lot of promise in it. We keep talking about training, we keep talking about those things that don’t work. The police are getting training but the conduct continues to be the same. In 2018, we paid $113 million in police misconduct settlements. I sit in every month on briefings about lawsuits for police misconduct and every month I have be walked through the insufferable conversation : “This is what happened. This is what this officer did.” “Is the officer still in the force? Yes, he is.”

The police are a black hole that sucks all of the resources that we could be using to actually keep people safe.

But how do we keep people safe? Well, we need to provide people the services that they need, and the resources that they need. And that is a lot of different things, housing for example, mental health services. So as the murders of Black people by police continued nationwide we began talking about what it would be like for Chicago to have an alternative way to respond to the safety needs of the people.

We looked at programs around the country that were doing this. There are cities that have decided to take public safety very seriously and look at it holistically. One example is the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, that also serves Springfield, OR. They take 20 percent of police calls for mental health crisis and non violent incidents instead of the police, and only call police in less than 1% of the incidents that they respond  to. There is a similar program in Denver that is very new but they have already responded to close to over 400 calls, and have not had to call police in any of those incidents. 

So we know that this is possible. We know that other cities are doing it, and that it works. So it is really crazy to me that in a city like Chicago that has a “progressive” mayor we are not seeing that kind of progress. There has been a  complete denial and refusal by the administration to take any resources from police. The police force continues to grow even though the Chicago police are a problem-making machine. This comes at the expense of the actual services that could be provided to people. 

Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, photo courtesy of 33 Ward Alderman Facebook page

We want to be able to imagine something different for our city that actually tends to the needs of the people. We do not want to continue using police as the main responder for safety in our communities. We know that nationally around  90% of calls to police are for nonviolent incidents and also that people with mental illnesses are at a much higher risk to be victims of police brutality, and to be killed by police. The police don’t have the ability nor the training, and neither should they. We do not want police to become social workers or mental health anything. 

One of the important parts of the order is to make sure that city government has oversight and it is public; because we are talking about public safety. We wouldn’t give the police to some nonprofit to run. This is our responsibility as a city, and we need to be able to have complete oversight.  And if we’re going to give these mental health workers the responsibility over the safety of our communities, we also need to compensate them, we need to give them agency over the way in which they perform their jobs. They deserve a union, benefits, a pension, to be compensated fairly. Keeping it public is an important part of this proposal.

We do not want police to become social workers or mental health anything.

So we would make use of the existing network of public mental health clinics that we have in the city that have systematically defunded and purposely shuttered. We have not been investing in them and this is a really great opportunity to dig into the potential that the mental health clinics have. We could attach mobile units to each of these mental health clinics and in addition to  being able to tend to crisis within communities we could do follow-up, and provide continuity of care. 

The need for this became evident last year in the middle of budget talks when we were pushing for funding for mental health clinics. The mayor’s response was to give $11 million to private mental health nonprofits and FQHC’s. This gives away some of our ability to protect these workers and to also have a public say in what they do with the money.  

What has the reception been for the council order in city hall? Both in terms of positive feedback and also what kind of push-back and arguments have you encountered? 

There is a really positive view of crisis response. I think people understand why it is important to move away from using police as the main responders. Right now what we need to be doing is reducing contact between the public and police. There’s no other way in which we can ensure that we’re not going to be losing more more life to police brutality. So there is a very positive perception of a model that moves away from policing. 

However, what the mayor and her team are proposing–which is going to be in direct conflict with our proposal–is to create a co-responder model where they send police with behavioral health workers to respond to crises.

We are absolutely opposed to that approach. Their argument is that, in Denver, a co-responder model was tested for four years before they ended up using the non-co-responder model. But CAHOOTS for example never had a co-responder model. What we’re saying is this has already been tried in other places and it has been proven that a co-responder model isn’t needed.

We don’t have to go through a period of being stuck in a pilot model that has already been tested for us. We should take advantage of that. We are definitely clear that we want a non-law enforcement model.

Why do you think Lightfoot insists on using the police with a co-responder model, even though, like you said, it’s been tried before and was determined to be less effective than the non-police version?

I think there’s a few aspects to that. First there is the fact the police are a very powerful institution and the people who are pro-police are very vocal, very aggressive. Also, Chicago right now is seen as this incredibly violent city and I think that they probably have concerns over public opinion. Of course, if anything goes wrong at any point it’s your fault for not using more policing, right? Moving away from relying on them is very scary for a lot of people because that is the tool that we have been using for so long. To completely let go of that tool for this model can be alarming for people who are moderates. And there is also Lori Lightfoot, who is not a progressive but a middle of the road centrist. While she has issues with the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police], she very much thinks through a law-enforcement lens. She has been very clear where she stands on defunding the police and for her it is very important to be seen as somebody who is “tough” on crime, which is a concern for moderates. I think that those are mostly the reasons.

That’s an excellent segue to my next question. Recently there was a lot of over-the-top pro-police backlash against you, such as a horrible article in which some landlords were quoted as “neighbors’ in order to manufacture the appearance that your ward was in an uproar about your council order. Can you talk about those dynamics and how have you tried to counter them?

I started getting backlash from the pro-police crowd last year after I introduced the Indigenous People Day ordinance. The pro-Columbus Day crowd is very much associated with the Blue Lives Matter crowd. After I introduced that ordinance, I started receiving hate mail, but then this year as the conversation went into removing the statues–which is something that I have been advocating for–things got really wild. The main protest that drew a lot of attention was the Black and Indigenous solidarity rally at the Columbus statue. After that people were like: “Did you see what you caused?” “This is your fault.” “You’ve been instigating because you have a platform and you are telling people that this is okay.”

In the context of the Defund messaging we started getting lots of threats and insults. I know for a fact that the firefighters union sent an email to their membership, telling them to call our office about a defund post my chief of staff (CoS) made on her personal social media. I did not get a screenshot of the same email from the FOP, but I have absolutely no reason to believe that they didn’t do the same.

So then we started getting a lot of calls with insults, calling me and my chief of staff lots of different things. They started calling for me to fire them. 

I have to say, it’s very scary that the people that are behind these attacks are the people who are our main public safety tool. It’s concerning that the people who are entrusted with our public safety could be the people calling my office saying that they’re gonna throw a brick through the window, or that they know where I live, or “wait until they come for your office, and then your home.” We have a really big problem if these are the people we are entrusting with our safety. 

Of course they are trying to scare people who are speaking up and trying to change things.

Earlier you were talking about public safety, and how one of your missions was to rethink what safety looks like. You also talked about how tough-on-crime approaches are so important for the political establishment, and also how there is a concern with crime is real in a certain way, such as concern over shootings, so that we can’t just say, “Well, it’s just poverty.” That does little to assuage the immediate fear.

When it comes to intracommunal violence, and shootings in particular, what is the socialist response to winning people to understanding that we don’t need more police to demonize folks who may be caught up in some complicated situation and doing tragic things? How should we respond, or what do we say to people’s concerns?

That’s such a great question. For the right, their solution is to just throw the police at every problem. That’s what you do, that’s it. For us on the left, the response is very nuanced and sometimes we have struggled to answer. You don’t have an elevator speech that presents a very simple solution. Because it’s not. 

So I think that there are a few different layers to the conversation. One, we’ve never funded the services that we need in order to prevent crime from happening. So if you don’t spend resources, you’re always going to have to be calling police because that is the bandaid to contain problems that you have not addressed at all. If we want crime to decrease at some point, we need to start investing in the services and resources people need. Otherwise we are always going to be contending with this problem. So that’s first. 

That means a lot of different things. That means adequate mental health supports. That means early family support, that means making sure that people have housing, making sure that people are able to get the services that they need in schools, making sure that we have youth programs. Decent paying jobs, like jobs with a living wage and job security. Because if people actually have a way to make a living and satisfy their needs, they’re going to be much less likely to engage in criminal activity. So I think that is the main thing. Chicago has the most police per capita of any major city in the United States. It’s not working. So when do we start investing?

The violence we see on the streets is the result of the violence against our communities. The violence of poverty and disenfranchisement. It’s the institutional violence of police brutality. The violence of racism. You can’t disconnect those things. 

So you can tell me that you want to continue to invest in policing all you want, but the reality is that police are not able to stop the shootings. If they were able to stop the shootings there would not be any shootings in the south and west sides of Chicago, because they have a lot of police. Like that’s all we do, we send police in. In the 17th district up here, they have been increasing policing, but the shootings are still going on. Because it’s really hard for police to predict when a shooting is gonna happen. Police come in after the fact.

So if we know the police have not been effective, we should definitely be looking at other approaches. And then you have the approach of the street outreach, workers, or violence interrupters. And that is a great approach but it needs to be funded and developed, and developing an effective street outreach program takes a while because it relies on relationships within the community. So you have to look at people that have been in the community for an extended period of time, those who have had ties to people in street organizations, and then make sure that there is adequate training. And then make sure that you can protect those people, in order to be able to de-escalate and/or to be able to reach people that would be really hard to reach in other circumstances, to prevent them from engaging in shootings. That kind of outreach approach has been incredibly effective in a lot of ways but it’s not a panacea either. We have to contend with the fact that there is a real cause for this violence and as long as we don’t address it, we’re going to continue to contend with the same things. 

The other part of this is that we need to look at the carceral systems and how they also don’t improve the situation. When people are getting locked up for a shooting, they go in, and they spend however much time locked up, when they come out they don’t come out better. Instead of trying to develop accountability processes that are going to make this human more whole, they are trying to further break them. It’s fighting trauma with more trauma. What comes out of that? They are going to come out and the same thing is going to continue to happen until either they get shot, or they get locked up again. It is a continuous cycle that is very damaging for everybody. It replicates trauma for our communities, for families, for children who are separated from parents or family members. Yes, locking people up removes them from society right now. But in the long term it’s not sustainable, and when they come out it’s likely they’re going to be repeating the same behaviors.

So I think there are a lot of arguments to stop what we’re doing. It takes a little bit more time to explain than just “lock them up.”

We have to contend with the fact that there is a real cause for this violence and as long as we don’t address it, we’re going to continue to contend with the same things.

There are some socialists who want to focus on just what they call “bread-and-butter” demands. But why is it important, do you think, for elected socialist officials around the country to put forward resolutions and ordinances that provide alternatives to the police?

I don’t think that it gets more bread and butter than this. This is daily life. And particularly in this moment, I just don’t understand if people know what’s happening, and I am talking about the people that are occupying positions of power. The people who are entrusted with creating policy so that we can have more livable societies.

COVID has transformed everything. The fact that we don’t have a safety net, the fact that the only thing that we’re looking at is austerity is going to make things so much worse. If right now things are bad, imagine if we get less money for social services than what we have right now. Imagine what it is going to be like if we are not able to provide the minimal mental health services that we’re providing right now. We are hanging by a thread. If we are not actively proposing alternatives to policing, we are definitely putting our communities at risk and mostly Black and brown communities who are the communities that always suffer the most.

Last question. You have been envisioning and fighting for different kinds of safety since before the recent uprising, but obviously you’re doing this as a part of a broader movement. So you are putting forward a defund ordinance, and there is also currently a campaign in Chicago led by the Black Abolitionist Network to defund the police department by 75 percent. At the same time, around the country efforts to defund have really been rolled back. I don’t know if you saw but Minneapolis went from “We’re gonna abolish the police department” to not doing it. So do you have thoughts or advice about how we can prevent this momentum from being squashed and defused?

Well, I think there is so much chaos right now, and that is definitely having an impact in our ability to be able to organize effectively. I am really hoping that we will be able to strengthen the movement and organize ourselves in a way that we can bring more people into this movement and under this banner. But I also think that we’re going to have to have very concrete proposals, and we need to help people imagine what is possible. I think a lot of us are really angry, justifiably so, because what is happening is horrible, and it has been horrible. A lot of us are just so sick of it. And of course we want the police defunded, we don’t want to continue to use this tool. But for a lot of people, for whom this is the only tool that they know, it’s going to take a lot more work to make sure that they’re able to envision what is possible.

Having things like CAHOOTS for example, that has had a history of 30 plus years of holistic public safety work – is very beneficial. Nobody will tell you, “No, no. I don’t want that.”

But I think that it is very important for us to make sure that at the same time that we’re organizing to defund, we are putting the same energy into building the dream, right? Helping people envision. And I’m not saying that that’s not happening. There are many organizations that are doing that. But I think that we need to be more effective in being able to message those things together. Like, “we could have this if we take the money from here.” 

But we have also seen a rise of the right in this moment that is making a lot of these discourses hard. We are just fighting for basic shit all the time. We’re fighting racists right now, we’re fighting open fascists. And the energy that goes into fighting all of those things at the same time, like listening to the president speak right now is like “what the fuck is he talking about?” You know. I feel like there’s a lot of the struggle and a lot of energy that is being sucked into nonsense that is completely designed to create chaos. We just need to keep fighting, and we need to keep dreaming, and we need to keep imagining. And we need to keep betting on the movement and on each other in order to be able to beat this.

Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez is Chicago's 33rd Ward Alderwoman and a Puerto Rican mother, educator, organizer, and community artist.