In Chicago, Expect the Police to Make Mayor Brandon Johnson’s Life Very Difficult

When politicians threaten police power, police often take matters into their own hands, frequently causing social chaos by refusing to perform basic duties. That’s likely to occur in Chicago. In fact, it might be happening already.

Chicago police headquarters at 35th Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune /Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In late March, as Paul Vallas’s grip on the Chicago mayoral race was slipping away, the city’s Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara sounded the alarm: a Brandon Johnson victory was going to result in violence and chaos.

“If this guy gets in we’re going to see an exodus like we’ve never seen before,” Catanzara told the New York Times, predicting that eight hundred to one thousand police officers would walk off the job if Johnson was elected. He then promised there would be “blood in the streets.”

Chicagoans were not impressed with Catanzara’s threat. Eight days after the article in the Times was published, Johnson, a former teachers’ union organizer who ran a progressive campaign calling for a holistic approach to public safety, beat Vallas by more than four percentage points — running up the score in areas of the city that have been most severely affected by violent crime over the last five years.

Johnson will be sworn in as mayor of the country’s third-largest city on May 15, carrying with him the hopes of people around the country who want to see bold, progressive big-city governance in a decade thus far defined largely by regressive, punitive politics targeting crime and homelessness.

Few people believe that one thousand police officers are about to walk off the job. But even if they don’t, the city’s police may push Johnson in other ways — testing both the new mayor’s commitment to holistic public safety and the strength of the movement that elected him.

A New Public Safety Approach

As a candidate, Johnson backed away from the “Defund the Police” demand, and said he wouldn’t make cuts to the police department budget. But he also made clear his understanding that no amount of policing will result in true safety. The public safety section of Johnson’s campaign website lamented that “the failures of the past have been repeated over and over,” while stating that the road to lasting safety in Chicago “starts with reversing decades of underinvestment in our youth, mental health services, and victim support.”

Johnson has promised to train two hundred new detectives and fill outstanding positions on the police force — but he’s also committed to ending no-knock warrants, canceling the city’s contract with ShotSpotter, erasing the police department’s “racist” gang database, and erecting a memorial to survivors of torture perpetrated by former police commander Jon Burge and his subordinates. He may not openly support defunding the police department now, but as of 2020, when he introduced a nonbinding resolution on the Cook County Board to redirect police funding to social services, he certainly grasped the overarching concept. “People are not feeling any safer, communities have not transformed by putting more money into the police,” he told WBEZ then.

The election results certainly bore that out. And it’s easy to understand why Chicagoans, presented with a coherent and thoughtful alternative strategy for crime prevention, voted the way they did. The Chicago Police Department (CPD) already has a budget of nearly $2 billion, which the city’s Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability has said it does not use “effectively or equitably,” because it, like so many police departments, has failed to produce a “long-term, data-driven strategy to reduce violence.” The department also has personnel issues that long predate Johnson’s election. A WGN report published in January found that more than one thousand officers left the force in 2022, with 35 percent of those officers resigning as opposed to retiring.

Nevertheless, Chicago still has one of the highest rates of police per capita of any major city in the country. “If more police equated safety, we’d be the safest city in the country,” Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, told Jacobin. “And we are not.”

Voters appear to be catching on, and Catanzara himself probably isn’t helping in terms of public relations. The city’s most visible officer is a near-caricature of a racist, bullying, old-school police union boss: he called Muslims “savages” in a Facebook post, called fellow officers who kneeled in solidarity with protesters following the police murder of George Floyd “ridiculous,” defended the January 6 insurrectionists, and compared the city’s COVID vaccination requirement to Nazi Germany. In a prime example of his questionable political instincts, Catanzara enthusiastically welcomed Ron DeSantis to the area to address Chicago police just weeks before an election in which the police union’s endorsed candidate was desperately trying to convince people that he wasn’t a secret Republican — and then skipped out on the event entirely after facing backlash.

Wildcat Slowdowns

But despite Vallas’s failure at the polls and the myriad issues dogging the department, Catanzara and the CPD rank and file may still try to make Johnson’s life as mayor difficult. They could accomplish that with an array of tactics that police in cities across the country have dabbled in over the last several years.

Perhaps the clearest example of a police response to a perceived political threat came in Minneapolis, where in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, the city council vowed to defund the city’s police department and replace it with an entirely new department of public safety. The backlash from the police department was swift: in protest, officers stopped doing major parts of their jobs.

An investigation conducted by Reuters found that in the year following Floyd’s murder, the number of people approached on the street by Minneapolis police officers dropped by 76 percent, while the response time to emergency calls increased by 40 percent. Officers all but ceased making traffic stops and patrolling in neighborhoods.

Police blamed the slowdown on inadequate staffing or officer skittishness following the racial justice uprising, but plenty of people interpreted it as a clear threat that any attempt to strip police of power would result in chaos. The slowdown coincided with a spike in violent crime in Minneapolis. Whether or not the slowdown was in any way responsible for the spike, the narrative was a powerful tool for police and their allies in 2021 as Minneapolis prepared to vote on a ballot measure to replace the scandal-plagued police department with a new department of public safety. Ultimately, voters rejected the measure.

This story is not unique to Minneapolis. After two police officers were killed in New York in 2015, New York police virtually stopped making arrests for two weeks. After the officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death was fired, New York police engaged in a similar slowdown. Baltimore police did the same thing after the killing of Freddie Gray led to mass protests.

Police don’t just launch wildcat strikes when their power is directly threatened, either. If they don’t like the district attorney, say, or a new bail-reform policy, they might pack it in for that too. An analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle found an immediate increase in policing activity after Brooke Jenkins replaced Chesa Boudin as district attorney, while cities like Philadelphia and Austin who still have progressive district attorneys have dealt with precipitous drops in police response times and investigations.

It might already be happening in Chicago. On Tuesday, WGN reported that a woman had tried to flag down police officers in a squad car to help stop an assault in progress downtown — in the midst of a wider, aggressive gathering of young people the previous Saturday night — only for the officers to drive away. The woman, Lenora Dennis, said she drove the couple who had been assaulted to a police station to make a report, where the desk sergeant told her words to the effect of, “This is happening because Brandon Johnson got elected.”

“I’ve lived in Chicago my entire life and would’ve never expected that,” Dennis told WGN. “If that’s a precursor to what’s about to happen that’s a total and complete problem.”

Opportunity Awaits

The remarkable thing is that while policing slowdowns cause problems for victims of crimes, there’s no clear evidence that they correspond with significant increases in crime. There’s even plenty of reason to believe that the cessation of police traffic enforcement, for instance, may make some people safer. In 2014 and 2015, when New York police officers were engaged in their slowdown, there was a notable decrease in crime.

If it’s possible for the presence of policing to increase violence, then the wildcat slowdown tactic is a somewhat of a gamble. “The difficulty for the police with such an endeavor is that it goes up against their rhetoric that they’re so essential — that civilization will collapse unless they do everything in their power to keep order,” Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, told Jacobin.

For Pulley, the real threat to public safety from police wouldn’t be a work slowdown but an uptick in police killings and support for white supremacist groups. “What we know to be true, without a work stoppage, is that [police] actually don’t arrive in a timely manner in many of the poorest, most impoverished, most systematically abandoned communities when there are emergencies that happen,” she said. “And when they do arrive, especially in cases of psychiatric emergency, they don’t arrive with the trained medical professionals it requires, but with guns.”

Vitale said that while most big-city US mayors give in to police “extortion,” Johnson has a head start, having already successfully tested the extent of police power in Chicago by beating Vallas. If police fail to do their jobs under his leadership, it will be just another reason to explore more reliable public safety options.

“Brandon Johnson should continue what he did during the campaign, which is to say that violence and crime are very real problems that should be a priority, but that policing is not the only possible tool to use,” Vitale said. “It’s not about vilifying the police. It’s about delivering on the demands from communities to create these additional strategies for making them safe.”