Brandon Johnson Will Walk a Tightrope on Crime as Chicago Mayor

The most important task for Brandon Johnson, who will be inaugurated as Chicago’s mayor on Monday, will be to pioneer a new, progressive path to address crime in the city while fending off attacks from a hostile media and the Chicago Police Department.

Then candidate Brandon Johnson speaks after being projected winner as mayor on April 4, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images)

This coming Monday, Brandon Johnson will take office as mayor of Chicago with no shortage of urgent priorities, or of forces arrayed against achieving them. Maybe none is more pivotal than the issue of crime and public safety.

Crime was arguably the issue of the city’s 2023 mayoral election, with poll after poll after poll showing it was top of mind for many voters, if not most. You only need to look at Johnson’s campaign itself to get a sense of its centrality: while his campaign launch commercial didn’t mention crime once, the subject was ubiquitous in the candidate’s ads and media appearances by the end.

With a relatively slender mandate — Johnson’s four-point winning margin is the slimmest since Harold Washington’s in 1983 — the pressure is now on to prove to voters that Johnson’s innovative approach to tackling crime, by focusing on its root causes and pouring money into long-neglected human needs, is the right one. It won’t be easy, despite Johnson’s rhetorical shifts on the issue as he tried to strike a balance between speaking to voters’ anxieties about crime and maintaining a commitment to progressive criminal-justice reforms. But if he succeeds, Johnson will blaze a trail for progressive local officials around the country to follow.

Three years ago, Johnson joined calls for “defunding the police,” authoring a nonbinding resolution in 2020 from his position as a Cook County commissioner that called for “redirect[ing] funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably.” Yet during the mayoral campaign, he disavowed “defund” as a political goal, instead vowing to find $150 million worth of “efficiencies” in the Chicago Police Department (CPD) budget and standing as the sole candidate who refused to promise to fill 1,600 police vacancies. By the end of the campaign, he pledged not to cut “one penny” from the police budget and claimed he had always planned to fill those vacancies.

Johnson had planned to find savings in the police budget by closing the city’s notorious Homan Square facility, where CPD has been accused of a wide variety of abuses; ending a wasteful $33 million contract for gunfire-detection sensors called ShotSpotter that many progressive criminal-justice activists claim to be ineffective; and streamlining the number of police supervisors. It’s not yet clear if such “efficiencies” would fall under his rejection of CPD budget cuts.

This careful modulation by candidate Johnson has given mayor-elect Johnson some wiggle room. After inauguration, Johnson will have more political space to avoid or at least minimize a bruising fight over the CPD budget with the city’s police union and an unfriendly political and media establishment, each of which would more likely than not hammer his administration for refusing to hire more cops and would fiercely resist any cuts.

He will need it, because plenty of his other promises are sure to trigger opposition that’s just as bitter. Johnson has vowed to “immediately enact” the federal consent decree imposed on the city’s police after the 2019 officer murder of Laquan Donald, which mandates federal oversight of the CPD and has been chronically delayed at least partly thanks to police opposition. He has promised to implement the spate of legal restrictions on police raids contained in the Anjanette Young Ordinance, including banning no-knock warrants and barring police from pointing guns at children, which had been rejected by the city council’s Committee on Public Safety late last year. And he’s also vowed to fire police officers “with direct ties to extremist organizations” like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, a very real problem within the CPD, but an effort that’s faced resistance across the country.

These initiatives will likely be the most controversial — and also the most tempting for an embattled mayoral administration to drag its feet on or even drop.

Less likely to meet resistance are those parts of Johnson’s platform that involve expanding law enforcement’s activities. Johnson’s answer to concerns about police vacancies was to promise the “training and promoting” of two hundred new detectives and, later, to expand hiring of black and brown officers by relaxing rules around who can and can’t become a cop. He also envisioned new mayoral offices for gun-violence prevention and community safety to “serve as the citywide coordinating hub for promoting violence prevention,” and a new CPD missing-persons initiative.

But the cornerstone of Johnson’s crime-fighting vision — the successful enactment of which may well make or break his mayoralty — are his ambitious proposals for sorely needed public investment. Throughout the campaign, Johnson argued that “the safest cities in America have one thing in common. . . . They invest in people.” For Johnson, that means not just doubling the number of youth summer jobs and reopening more than a dozen public mental health centers, but pouring money into public schools, housing programs for the homeless, and a variety of nonviolent, nonpolice first-responder initiatives.

The crux of Johnson’s public-safety strategy is the enactment of his wider economic and social program. And that will depend on the enactment of a suite of new taxes on the wealthy, including a hike on both the hotel tax and the real estate transfer tax on expensive properties, and a 3.5 percent income tax on Chicagoans making six figures, with the sweetener of freezing property taxes. That in itself will entail a fierce political battle, with the specter of capital flight looming above it all.

The stakes are high. If Johnson succeeds and gets this difficult needle-threading agenda over the line — and in the process not just makes material improvements in people’s lives, but even presides over a drop in crime — he won’t just win a second term but will serve as a model for all progressives at the municipal level. If he fails, or the city even sees an uptick in crime, it will be used to shut progressives out of power in the city for the foreseeable future and delegitimize the Left more broadly all over the country.

To carry it through, he’ll need a committed activist movement that’s as mobilized to fight for his political program and fend off the inevitable opposition arrayed against it as they had been to get him elected in the first place. But that movement will also need to hold the incoming mayor to his promises, when the ever-present political temptation to follow the path of least resistance inevitably rears its head. Johnson once emphasized on the campaign trail that “these are not radical ideas.” The task for Chicago’s left now is to make sure he feels the same once he’s sitting on the fifth floor of City Hall.