Despite record youth investment, Chicago leaders are divided on preventing youth violence

Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed a curfew that forbids "unaccompanied minors" from accessing Millennium Park after 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. (Damita Menezes/MEDILL)
Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed a curfew that forbids "unaccompanied minors" from accessing Millennium Park after 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. (Damita Menezes/MEDILL)

By Damita Menezes

Medill Reports

After large groups of Chicago teens gathered downtown earlier this month, leading to incidents of mayhem and destruction, city leaders are divided on prevention strategies as warmer days lie ahead.

“We must have the will to immediately extricate and arrest anybody seeking to try to incite the crowds to violence,” Ald. Raymond Lopez of the 15th Ward said.

While Lopez calls for Chicago Police Department presence, parental accountability and curfews, Ald. Andre Vasquez said he believes there are deeper issues that need to be addressed.

“The city has not done the best job of providing outlets. We’ve been asking for more mental health clinics and more gathering spaces, opening up schools and making more community centers. But it has been challenging getting anything done under the Lightfoot administration,” said Vasquez, of the 40th Ward.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has said demonizing children is wrong, but schools should be funded and teens need to receive access to jobs.

According to the 2019 budget overview report, $57 million was invested in youth services. In 2023, $150 million was invested, according to the 2023 budget overview report.

“I know that many of my colleagues and the mayor-elect love to call for more money, more programs. But we have plenty. The problem is parents are not making sure their children are participating. I’m sure not one of those children that were out there this past week has taken advantage of the resources. We cannot force people to take advantage of programs. What we can force people to do is follow the law,” Lopez said.

The outgoing Lightfoot administration’s investment in youth services also includes the One Summer Chicago (OSC) employment program, which hired 20,544 out of 45,000 applicants from ages 14 to 24 in job placements and training last summer.

In 2022, the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) introduced target populations to its youth employment programs to ensure youth from the following at-risk populations receive a fair chance to participate:

  • Individuals living with disabilities
  • Individuals who are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners
  • Individuals enrolled in CPS schools rated Level 2, Level 3, or Options as identified by the district’s School Quality Ratings Program (SQRP)
  • Individuals who are experiencing homelessness or that are unstably housed
  • Individuals placed in the foster care system
  • Individuals who have been touched by the justice system (i.e., parole, probation)
  • Opportunity Youth (defined as out of school and out of work)

DFSS in an email said 54.7% of youth enrolled identified with one or more of the target populations.

Lopez said the events downtown earlier this month were not representative of all the youth in Chicago but rather a small handful acting nonsensically.

As a teenager in Chicago, Vasquez said he and his friends used to go downtown to find things to do. They would often be kicked out of public spaces by police officers. He drew parallels between his experiences and those of today’s teenagers, who are trying to create their own communities but are not viewed positively.

Vasquez said violence prevention groups have started to build up, but they need to be expanded to cover the whole city.

Regarding preventing any surges of violence downtown this summer, Vasquez stated it is a top priority for everyone in City Hall. However, with the transition to a new administration, conversations about preventing violence are ongoing.

Lopez said the lack of leadership at the top of the police department and the state attorney’s office is a part of the problem.

Lopez is calling for arresting anyone seeking to incite violence and holding parents accountable for the actions of their children. He also called for a curfew to be enforced and for police to hold youth who are in violation of the curfew on site until their parents arrive. Without such measures, Lopez warned the violence could become a routine occurrence throughout the summer, putting the city’s resources under extreme pressure and leaving residents vulnerable.

Lopez’s comments come as the city prepares for the arrival of NASCAR in July. With resources already stretched thin, Lopez warned the events could put further pressure on the city’s emergency services, leaving residents vulnerable.

The outbreak of violence has raised concerns about the safety of residents and visitors to the city, as well as the impact on the city’s reputation.

Even though city leaders are divided on what needs to be done, both sides agree CPD needs to do more.

“We know that there’s a part CPD has to play.  And I think we’ve got to figure out what that relationship looks like so that police can do their core function: apprehension, investigation and emergency response when appropriate. But we also need to have the other systems in place so that they can focus on those issues,” Vasquez said.

“The Chicago Police Department has the resources and the ability to follow and track many of these street takeover events. Social media has been used against us in our city countless times over and over again. The problem is that we are not coordinating with the state’s attorney’s office or with our federal partners at the U.S. attorney’s office to identify who is responsible and to track these videos back to their source. Specifically, as we hear the refrain of demonizing our youth. Then let’s demonize the perpetrators of these events,” Lopez said.

With the summer months approaching, many will watch closely how the city responds to this latest challenge.

Damita Menezes is a graduate student in the video & broadcast specialization. Connect with her on her website