Under pressure to crack down on Chicago’s homicide problem, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance Tuesday that would slap gang members with fines and give police the authority to seize their property if they’re known to be behind street violence.
The proposal — dubbed the “Victims’ Justice Ordinance” — is likely to prompt legal challenges from civil rights attorneys and social justice organizations who believe the measure could wrongly accuse Black and Latino residents of being involved in gang activity.
Lightfoot’s proposed ordinance could allow judges or court officers to impose fines as high as $10,000 for each offense and seize “any property that is directly or indirectly used or intended for use in any manner to facilitate street gang-related activity.”
It also calls for the seizure of any property that gangs obtained through illegal means such as drug-dealing or other crimes.
Chicago’s violence statistics shot upward last year during the pandemic and the extended period of unrest following the police-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the spike has not abated during 2021, leaving the mayor and leaders of the Chicago Police Department searching for solutions.
The ordinance indicates that law enforcement could be prioritizing its efforts to go after criminal suspects who are 18 and older instead of minors who could be driving illegal activity.
“The city further finds that street gangs are often controlled by criminally sophisticated adults who take advantage of our youth by intimidating and coercing them into membership by employing them as drug couriers, and by using them to commit brutal crimes against persons and property to further the financial benefit and dominance of the street gangs,” according to the ordinance.
Law enforcement has routinely pointed to Chicago as having one of the worst gang problems in the country.
But in recent years, its police force has come under severe scrutiny for allegations that its officers have wrongly labeled people as gang members, particularly Black and Latino residents.
The city’s inspector general’s office has criticized the Police Department’s controversial “gang database,” finding that the police for years erroneously entered or kept names of people who didn’t belong in the database.
Just last week, police Superintendent David Brown said the database is still in use, the names in it “have been vetted” and an appeal process for those who believe they’ve been wrongly placed in the database is being finalized.
Also last week, Brown announced he would be shifting officers from the department’s roving citywide unit, the community safety team, to work assignments that focus on combating gang activity.
The ACLU of Illinois was quick to criticize the mayor’s proposal, calling it a recycled version of failed state forfeiture law.
“The mayor’s time would be better spent on the real work of reducing violence, which includes investing in communities, reforming police practices and expanding access to social and mental health services,” said Colleen Connell, executive director of the organization.
“It is astonishing to hear the mayor and law enforcement officials pretend that this power would be used solely in a targeted fashion against gang members,” Connell said. “The city had to scrap use of its flawed gang database because it included thousands of people who had no history of gang membership or criminal involvement. It is hard to see how their capacity about who to target has improved since that time.”