Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to use $281.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to cover Chicago Police Department payroll costs during the early months of the pandemic drew an angry rebuke Thursday from activists and aldermen who said the money could have instead provided badly needed housing, health care and business lifelines to struggling residents.
During a news conference organized by the United Working Families political organization, community organizers laid out what they said would have been more worthy uses of the money.
Amika Tendaji, executive director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, said myriad grassroots outreach groups could have used some of the funding to help people struggling during the pandemic, instead of seeing it go to a police department that too often works against residents.
“This is a city that also is under a consent decree, that’s already being watched by the federal government because its officers could not follow the law and were already brutalizing its citizens, and doubled down on that over the summer,” Tendaji said.
“So that money, the CARES Act money should have gone to our cousins, our family members who did not have enough PPE when we were all out doing mutual aid drives, should have gone to people getting food, which we were all giving out doing mutual aid drives, not more criminals. Not the police, who have already proven that they cannot stop, they cannot follow the law and they cannot stop beating Chicagoans.”
The amount of federal police reimbursement came to light as Lightfoot sought City Council approval Wednesday to transfer about $65 million in unspent federal COVID-19 money into the 2021 budget, after the Biden administration waived Federal Emergency Management Agency local funding matches and extended the deadline to spend federal dollars until the end of this year.
Pressed by aldermen in June, city officials said no federal money had been spent on police department reimbursements.
But the city Budget Department this week said specific coronavirus-related police costs between March and May were later identified as eligible for CARES Act funding, for things such as police performing wellness checks on residents, airport security when travelers had to be screened for COVID-19, security at the McCormick Place coronavirus field hospital and security at virus testing sites.
Jalen Kobayashi, an organizer with anti-violence group GoodKids MadCity, said a fraction of that money could have made a much bigger impact as part of grassroots efforts to stop gun violence.
“The generational trauma that is facing the South and West sides is never being addressed,” Kobayashi said.
The city Budget Department sent out a series of tweets Thursday, which the mayor retweeted from her account, defending the spending plan against the “misinformation circulating over the last 24 hours on our CARES Act spending.”
The department noted that $94 million in CARES Act money went to homeless services, and another $80 million to rental assistance, plus over $100 million to small business assistance.