USA

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveils security plan for election-related civil unrest, urges peaceful protests

Under pressure to avoid a repeat of this summer’s civil unrest, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a 10-day preparedness plan aimed at preventing looting and chaos on Chicago’s streets around Halloween and next week’s presidential election.

As part of her plan, Lightfoot will increase police patrols across the city while deploying 60 to 300 garbage trucks and other heavy city vehicles to key neighborhood corridors to be used as a blockade on wheels. The Office of Emergency Management and Communications also has held a number of trainings aimed at severe weather, COVID-19 outbreaks and protests related to the election, city officials said.

Chicago police and city vehicles block portions of North Michigan Avenue following early morning looting and violence in Chicago on Aug. 10, 2020.

Chicago police and city vehicles block portions of North Michigan Avenue following early morning looting and violence in Chicago on Aug. 10, 2020. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The city’s been planning for the election “really since late summer,” Lightfoot said, by taking into account “humbling” lessons learned from the summer’s civil unrest.

No matter who wins the elections, Lightfoot urged people to channel their emotions into peaceful protests.

“We need to de-escalate from this long difficult year,” Lightfoot said.

Although some residents are concerned about their physical safety, Lightfoot said, “with our planned precautions in place, it is absolutely safe to vote.”

By Friday morning, Chicago had recorded more than 650,000 early votes this election, which were either cast in person, returned by mail or dropped in the city’s drop boxes, located at every early voting site and 26 public libraries. That compares with about 450,000 votes cast during the entire duration of early voting in 2016.

Marisel Hernandez, chairwoman of the Chicago Board of Elections, said election officials feel “very prepared” for Election Day staffing, adding that there’s been “an outpouring of support” from Chicago voters aged 18 to 24 who have volunteered this year to serve as election judges.

“Not only do we have the judges of election assigned, but we have backup judges of election,” Hernandez said Friday at the news conference.

Rich Guidice, OEMC’s executive director, said residents who want to receive public safety alerts, including updates on street closures, traffic and the weather, should sign up at notifychicago.org.

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown said days off will be canceled for officers departmentwide on Halloween, and a few citywide teams will have their days off canceled for the next 10 days.

He also said special hotlines have been set up for business owners’ safety concerns in each of the department’s 22 patrol districts over the next week.

"People in general have very high anxiety as it relates to the upcoming election and we understand that, and we are focused on ensuring our officers will work to de-escalate to calm tensions so that everyone is comfortable exercising their right to vote

“We’re also there to prevent lawlessness,” Brown continued. “There were be a zero tolerance (of) criminality during this time, and any time for that matter.”

“Our intelligence points to a peaceful weekend and safe election,” Brown said. “Please celebrate safely this weekend, and I also encourage everyone to vote.”

Brown also said the public would not see the Police Department’s presence of undercover officers, its efforts to investigate crimes on social media and its engagement with concerned merchants.

While emphasizing his officers would take a de-escalation approach to lawbreakers, Brown said there’d be “swift action” taken against looters. He insisted he’s taking a “strong stance” on this issue, after the department was caught off guard by groups of looters who ran amok through downtown in August.

Workers board up the Macy's store on State Street in Chicago's Loop on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, ahead of Election Day.

Workers board up the Macy's store on State Street in Chicago's Loop on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, ahead of Election Day. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

“Don’t loot in Chicago,” Brown said. “If you do loot, you will be accountable. If you escape, we will find you and bring you to justice.”

Facing criticism for the city’s response to this summer’s civil unrest, Lightfoot’s taken extraordinary measures to prevent businesses from being ransacked.

Ever since downtown was hit with a second bout of looting on Aug. 10, Brown has pulled officers off beat patrols in districts on the North, South and West sides and moved them downtown. The strategy has been controversial, leading some aldermen and community activists to question whether the mayor cares more about high-end merchants and affluent Chicagoans than other parts of the city.

The Police Department has defended the reallocation of its resources by saying it has made up for the loss of cops assigned to the city’s 22 patrol districts by forming a new citywide unit currently staffed with about 500 officers and tasked with responding to sudden flare-ups in violence in neighborhoods away from downtown. Brown also has said the city’s summer mobile patrol unit, a temporary citywide unit of about 200 cops, would be in place in the residential areas until November.

These units, however, are not deployed to every neighborhood.

A third citywide unit, composed of about 250 officers, is tasked with responding to crime hot spots downtown, as well as any protests or large, impromptu gatherings that form across the city.

To put that into perspective, Lightfoot budgeted roughly $180 million in 2020 overtime costs for all city departments, records show.

Much of the spending is being driven by police and other public safety departments, as well as public health needs generated by the coronavirus pandemic.

But overtime also has skyrocketed due to public safety needs even in departments that do not obviously have public safety at the core of their mission, such as Streets and Sanitation, which already has spent twice its overtime budget.

Officials have defended the moves as necessary uses of taxpayer dollars aimed at protecting local businesses and communities already hit hard by the pandemic and civil unrest.

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