Defund the police or take their handcuffs off? Paul Vallas, Brandon Johnson deny controversial statements at public safety forum – Chicago Tribune

Chicago mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson had one thing in common during a Tuesday debate focused on public safety: They both denied making controversial comments attributed to them.

Asked about his previous support for the “defund the police” movement — including a declaration that it isn’t a slogan but a “real political goal” — Johnson said, “I said it was a political goal. I never said it was mine.”

Vallas, meanwhile, was asked about his calls to “take the handcuffs off the police,” which he denied.

“Well, please let me know where I said that because … I’ve avoided using that rhetoric, and if I haven’t, I’d be surprised by that quote, because I’ve been careful not to say that one,” Vallas said.

The exchanges illustrated how Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, and Johnson, a Cook County commissioner backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, are trying to appeal to moderates ahead of the April 4 election.

Both answers were misleading.

Mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas attend a public safety mayoral forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Tuesday.

Starting in 2020, Johnson repeatedly made remarks endorsing activist-backed calls to reallocate police budgets and send the funds to other agencies in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Since entering the mayor’s race, he has backed away from such calls and said he would keep the Police Department’s spending as it is.

He did, however, make efforts as a county commissioner to redirect money from law enforcement, including the Cook County sheriff’s office.

In 2020, Johnson spoke on a panel titled “We Don’t Call Police: A Town Hall on a Police-Free Future,” where he praised organizers for pushing “an agenda that actually can transform people’s lives.”

“And part of it is removing ourselves away from this, you know, state-sponsored policing,” Johnson said.

He also criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s opposition to “defund the police,” saying the movement is “not just admirable, but it’s necessary.”

“We know the mayor of Chicago here rebuked this call to redirect money to defund this failed system of incarceration and policing,” Johnson said on a radio show he was hosting in 2020. “So whether it’s the president of the United States calling it a catchy hashtag or phrase, (or) Lori Lightfoot, which I think is actually quite dismissive of the young people who are literally putting their lives on the line for a cause that I think, quite frankly, is not just admirable, but it’s necessary.”

Vallas, meanwhile, denied his comments against the idea of “handcuffing” police officers and suggested the moderators were confusing him with a previous mayoral candidate, Willie Wilson.

When he rolled out his public safety plan in December, however, Vallas said he would reverse rules that have “literally handcuffed officers,” according to WTTW, contributing to demoralization and making “proactive policing” impossible.

“It is really time to make criminal activity illegal again,” Vallas said. “It seems that people can simply commit crimes with impunity.” He has also made posts on Facebook and Twitter criticizing local leaders and state legislation for what he said was “handcuffing” police.

Attendees hold up signs while attending a public safety mayoral forum with candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on March 14, 2023.

Both candidates opened the discussion with the assertion that Chicago police can’t solve the problem of violence alone, but Johnson was more explicit in criticizing what he said was a police-heavy focus from City Hall over recent decades.

“Let me make this clear: Many times when our people begin to deliver services, the first thing people say is that our services are failing our people when we’ve seen jails and incarceration fail our people,” Johnson said.

Johnson also drew a response from Vallas when he took credit for what he said was an “equity”-focused budget passed by the Cook County Board and that “I’m the only person on this stage who has actually put forth a budget plan.” He also connected the increase in property taxes to Vallas, who led the public school district and budget office.

“I haven’t been budget director in 25 years,” Vallas responded.

Regarding his plans to recruit retired officers to return, which has seen low results in some cities where it’s been tried, Vallas said he would be able to recruit former cops if work conditions improve.

Johnson, meanwhile, said standards are too stringent, particularly for Black applicants.

“We are remarkable human beings to want to serve a system that hasn’t served us,” he said, before focusing on restoring confidence in the Police Department despite a high-profile instance where Lightfoot defended the department’s decision not to fire a cop tied to the extremist group Proud Boys.

“Not to mention, you might have a co-worker who was a part of a white supremacist organization,” he said.

Vallas focused his few criticisms of Johnson on his staffing plans for Chicago police, including concerns over whether his opponent’s idea to promote 200 officers to detectives without a specific call to fill those beat cop positions wouldn’t leave a shortage.

“Simply promoting 200 officers to the detectives’ division, OK, it’s not going to solve the problems of crime in Chicago,” Vallas said.

Vallas has said he will replenish the ranks of officers who have left the department.

Johnson asked back sarcastically: “So having detectives to solve crime doesn’t solve crime in the city of Chicago?”

Vallas also explained his philosophy of “proactive,” “community-based” policing during the forum. The candidate said the term is misinterpreted to mean “mass incarceration” or “stop-and-frisk” but actually entails training officers and placing them “on every beat” to increase interactions with residents and build up trust.

“The bottom line is, I’ve talked about it over and over again in columns, etc., is to restore proactive policing — and proactive policing that is consistent with the consent decree, and I’ve said that over and over and over again — proactive policing is not taking the handcuffs off,” Vallas said.

He continued by laying out a vision of having beat cops “who know the community and who are known by name and by badge.”

“Community policing fundamentally means you have beat officers on every beat, so every single beat is covered by a patrol car manned,” Vallas said. “… And if you have enough police officers, and if you have enough detectives and you have a witness protection program, then the police officers will keep constantly interacting with the community.”

Johnson responded: “Yeah, why when we talk about Black and brown communities, do we have to come up with new terms? I think the better question is why are we describing policing as a community effort only in Black and brown communities?”

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