• Alex Nitkin
    FEB 18, 2022

    Lightfoot’s gang asset forfeiture plan clears committee as aldermen blast ‘80s-based strategy’

    Ald. Matt Martin (47) and Chicago Police Department Deputy Chief Ernest Cato speak during a committee meeting Thursday. 

    A controversial proposal by Mayor Lori Lightfoot that would empower city attorneys to sue gang leaders for their assets cleared a key committee hurdle on Thursday, lining it up for final approval for the City Council next week. The measure advanced despite a crush of challenges from aldermen who said expanding asset forfeitures could be costly at best and harmful at worst with scant hard evidence that the policy could make a dent in crime. 

    The council’s Committee on Public Safety voted 10-4 to approve the so-called “Victim’s Justice Ordinance,” which Lightfoot first pitched last September as a way to go “after gangs’ profit motives.” 

    Related: FOP contract approved as Lightfoot’s proposals on pot shop zoning, gang lawsuits stall 

    The committee also approved an ordinance expanding the Civilian Office of Police Accountability’s powers to investigate sexual misconduct but shelved a proposal designed to prevent officers who are killed in the line of duty from being posthumously named in public disciplinary reports. 

    Officials in Lightfoot’s administration say they modeled the gang lawsuit ordinance on a 1993 state law that allows state’s attorneys to file civil lawsuits against gangs and their members. It would allow the city to pursue lawsuits the state or federal government passes on. 

    The measure would require the city to prove the person against whom they bring the lawsuit is a gang leader, that their gang “has engaged in a pattern of criminal activity, including at least two criminal acts within the preceding five years” and where at least one of the “criminal activities” included a “violent or predatory felony motivated by gang-related profit” and that the acts harmed the city.  

    Related: Lightfoot’s proposal to sue gangs faces harsh questioning from aldermen: ‘a solution in search of a problem’ 

    Lightfoot’s proposal would allow the city to fine people $15,000 for their first violations and up to $30,000 plus up to 180 days in jail for subsequent offenses within 12 months of the first violation.  

    "A yes vote on this ordinance is providing a very important tool to help the Chicago Police Department go after gangs and gang enterprises that are causing violence because of the illegal narcotics trade in particular,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety John O’Malley told committee members on Thursday. 

    Lightfoot’s proposal has faced intense pushback from civil rights attorneys, civil libertarian groups like ACLU of Illinois and from Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, who publicly predicted the ordinance would accomplish little except to “take a lot of Camrys and Civics from unsuspecting grandmas.”  

    But officials including O’Malley and Chicago Police Department Deputy Chief Ernest Cato repeatedly stressed that the city would only use the new powers to target “high-level” gang leaders, not petty criminals or foot soldiers. 

    “We have to think of this ordinance as a tool of deterrence,” Cato said. “We’re not confiscating a home from a grandmother or a car that a grandfather has been driving.” 

    Ald. Matt Martin (47), who has been a vocal critic of the proposal, said Thursday that he wants more information from federal and county prosecutors about why they dropped certain cases before the city commits its attorneys to “spend their precious time and resources” pursuing those same cases. 

    The proposal also spurred a hard rebuke from Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6), typically an ally of Lightfoot’s, who said the ordinance’s definition of “gang members” “seems like it’s strictly focused on Black and brown people that got together because they’re under similar circumstances.” 

    “We should be going after all people that are involved in illegal activity,” Sawyer said. “But we're making the joining of a street organization in and of itself an illegal activity. And that's where my problem lies.” 

    Just one alderman spoke up to defend the proposal on Thursday: Ald. Jason Ervin (28), who chairs the Aldermanic Black Caucus and stood behind Lightfoot as she rolled out the proposal last September. 

    “Our community is saying that [they] want tools that are going to help curtail the activity that’s happening on the street,” Ervin said. “If the [drugs] in the trunk that keep Miss Jones up all night long are removed from the block, and this is a tool that can make that happen, that’s what people are asking for.” 

    But city attorneys and police officials faced a hail of questions from a half-dozen freshman aldermen who spoke up against the proposal despite lacking a vote on the public safety committee. Multiple aldermen, including Ald. Andre Vasquez (40), demanded to see data or evidence that linked asset forfeiture to decreases in crime. 

    O’Malley read from the “federal government’s asset forfeiture mission statement,” which says the practice “plays a critical role in disrupting dismantling illegal enterprises depriving criminals of the proceeds of their illegal activity, deterring crime and restoring property to victims.” 

    “Is a mission statement data?” Vasquez asked in response. 

    Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33) added to the pile-on, noting that proponents of the ordinance had done little to justify the added legal powers except to point to prosecutors and police in other Illinois counties who said they had found the practice useful. 

    “Correlation is not the same as causation, and I think it would be very beneficial if we had some studies or something you could provide other than the word of the counties,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “That’s not how it works. If we are actually saying we’re going to have evidence-based approaches, I want to see evidence…I’m seeing a plan, but there is no evidence that this works.” 

    O’Malley acknowledged that he had no data to back up his argument, but said he “would think there is evidence.” 

    “Maybe some of that data would be helpful,” O’Malley said. “But I don’t think asset forfeiture would exist if it was not a deterrent in fighting this activity.”  

    City attorney Elena Gottreich added that “we don’t have any hard data right now, however we do have the knowledge that laws deter crime.” 

    That was not enough to sway Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22), who called the ordinance “an 80s-based strategy for 2022 problems.” 

    “I’d argue that this wouldn’t work in 1980 either — and it didn’t work,” Rodriguez. “I’d much rather us deal with the real issues…of guns flowing into our streets and figuring out ways to resolve those issues that I think really would lead to a decrease in crime.” 

    Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) made a motion to defer consideration of the ordinance, saying he was “repulsed by the amount of stunned silence from those presenting and defending the ordinance” in response to tough questions. His motion failed in a 3-13 vote.  

    Committee chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29) then moved to approve the ordinance, which passed in a 10-4 vote that approximately mirrored the deferral vote.  

    Taliaferro, Ervin, Ald. Derrick Curtis (18), Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30), Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38), Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41), Ald. Michele Smith (43), Ald. Debra Silverstein (50) and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) voted to approve the ordinance.  

    Lopez, Sawyer, Martin and Ald. Harry Osterman (48) voted in opposition. Osterman was the lone aldermen who voted against both the deferral and the ordinance.  

    The ordinance is set for a final stamp of approval by the full City Council next Wednesday.  

    COPA ordinances 

    At the end of the meeting, the committee quickly and unanimously advanced a proposal (O2021-3993) sponsored by Ald. Matt Martin (47) clarifying that the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) may investigate claims of “domestic violence, sexual misconduct, excessive force, coercion, or verbal abuse.”  

    However, Taliaferro delayed a vote on a separate proposal that had been directly introduced to the committee that would allow COPA’s chief administrator to retroactively redact the name of officers who have been killed in the line of duty from public disciplinary reports.  

    Andrea Kersten, COPA’s interim administrator whose confirmation is set to be finalized by the City Council on Wednesday, told the committee Thursday that the ordinance was “tailored to the specific concerns that were raised” when COPA released a report on the botched 2019 police raid on Anjanette Young’s home that included the name of slain Officer Ella French. The report drew a backlash that nearly derailed Kersten’s nomination before the public safety committee narrowly advanced her nomination earlier this month. 

    Related: Aldermen narrowly send Lightfoot’s pick to lead COPA for final vote in City Council 

    Kersten said the proposed ordinance would still allow members of the public to file Freedom of Information Act Requests for unredacted versions of disciplinary reports.  

    Still, multiple aldermen said they were uncomfortable by the precedent the ordinance set.  

    “We are charged with increasing transparency with the police department under the consent decree, and in the same breath, we want to redact certain information,” Ervin said, adding that aldermen “have a greater responsibility than to just deal on the emotions of issue.”  

    Ald. Maria Hadden (49) agreed, saying “protecting people's names sometimes means obscuring and hiding the truth."  

    Taliaferro and Kersten agreed to hold the item after Martin made the request so that officials and aldermen could continue to “workshop” it. 

    Finally on Thursday, the public safety committee voted unanimously and without debate to approve the appointments and reappointments of Carla Orlandini (A2022-12), Ernest Cato III (A2022-13), Susie Park (A2022-14), Mary Sheridan (A2202-15) and Daniel Casey (A2022-16) as members of the Chicago Emergency Telephone System Board. 

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