Could Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Plan To Sue Gang Leaders Make Violence Worse?

Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pictured earlier this year. Lightfoot has proposed suing gang leaders for their profits from alleged crimes in an attempt to try and reduce gun violence. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pictured earlier this year. Lightfoot has proposed suing gang leaders for their profits from alleged crimes in an attempt to try and reduce gun violence. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Could Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Plan To Sue Gang Leaders Make Violence Worse?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s newest proposal to try and reduce the city’s staggeringly high levels of gun violence is to sue gang leaders for their profits from alleged crimes.

Critics have called the plan impractical, potentially harmful and a desperate political move from a mayor who wants to be seen as doing something to address one of the biggest problems facing the city.

Lightfoot has struggled to articulate a defense of her plan in response.

When asked by WBEZ if there was a jurisdiction where similar lawsuits have been effective, Lightfoot didn’t name any.

But filing lawsuits against gang members has been tried before in the Chicago area, and the results were not impressive.

Lightfoot’s proposed ordinance is modeled after a 1993 Illinois state law empowering local governments to go after potential gang funds. According to the Chicago Tribune, DuPage County in the western suburbs, was the first jurisdiction in the state to file suit under that law.

DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin said he believes the lawsuits helped bring down gang crime there.

“In combination with criminal prosecution, gang lawsuits … send a message to the gangs, that you’re serious about reducing gang activity,” Berlin said.

Berlin said through the lawsuits, the county has gotten injunctions banning gang members from certain illegal activities, and from doing things like owning a gun, throwing up gang signs or associating with each other. But Berlin was not sure if authorities ever enforced any of those court orders.

He also acknowledged they’ve never gotten any money out of the gang lawsuits.

Berlin said DuPage prosecutors have filed only four gang lawsuits in the last three decades. The most recent one was filed in 2010, before Berlin took over as state’s attorney.

“We haven’t seen the need to pursue one of these,” Berlin said. “That’s not to say that we won’t in the future.”

“It can get worse”

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said it is clear Lightfoot’s proposal is based on an outdated understanding of street violence, “assuming a very 1980s version of criminal enterprise” with kingpins and profit motives. But in 2021, he said, gun violence is driven by interpersonal disputes and “social media BS.”

Because the violence isn’t driven by profits, the lawsuits won’t work to deter crime, Mitchell said. What they will do, he said, is make desperate people even more desperate.

“I’ve heard it said, like, ‘you know, why not do everything that we can to stop violence?’ And I have to say, it can get worse,” Mitchell said. “You can make poor communities poorer, you can make [anti-violence workers’] jobs harder, you can weaken police, community relations.”

Lightfoot has pledged that if the ordinance passes, her law department would only go after the high-level gang leaders calling the shots and profiting off of violence from afar, not poor young people out on the corner.

“Tell that to the victims”

Ald. Andre Vasquez, a member of the city council’s progressive caucus, echoed Mitchell’s concerns, saying Lightfoot’s proposal “may garner a headline, but it doesn’t address the root cause” of gun violence.

In an interview with WBEZ last week, Lightfoot fired back.

“I want to say to those people who are the critics, or the skeptics, tell that to the victims and communities that are terrified to come out of their homes and feel like the gangs have taken over their neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said. “This is a lifeline to them.”

Freddy Martinez, executive director of Lucy Parsons Labs, which advocates for transparency and policy accountability, said he grew up in Little Village, a neighborhood that has historically struggled with gang violence, and he took exception to the mayor’s comments.

“This idea that somehow the people who are advocating for good public policy are not on the side of people who are victimized, and that we’re not looking out for the best interest of our communities, it’s absolutely false,” Martinez said.

Martinez’s group has studied asset forfeiture in drug cases, and based on that, Martinez agrees with Mitchell the proposal would do more harm than good.

“I think it’s just sort of adding more ways to criminalize and take things from people that really don’t fix the underlying problems of like poverty, access to mental health, things like this,” Martinez said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.