Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
During a global pandemic that’s forced millions of Americans into poverty and months of demands to “defund the police,” Chicago’s mayor handed over millions of dollars in federal COVID relief money to the city’s police department.
Of the $1.2 billion in COVID-19 relief Chicago received from the federal government last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot put $281.5 million toward police duties, such as resident wellness checks and increased police presence at airports, testing sites, and field hospitals, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But the city’s budget director, Susie Park, said last June that none of the federal funds would go toward policing, according to the Tribune.
After spending $376 million helping local airports, $189 million funding COVID-19 research labs, as well $94 million providing homeless and rental assistance to Chicago residents, local officials told VICE News the city had $403 million left over to spend at its own discretion.
And 65 percent of that went toward police, instead of more housing relief and other social services. Chicago residents have accumulated $450 million in rent debt since the start of the pandemic, according to the Chicago Housing Justice League.
“At baseline, Chicago deserves transparency and oversight,” said Alderman Daniel La Spata, who asked the mayor last year to use the money for housing relief. “At best, we would have used these dollars to keep our neighbors and businesses stable and healthy. We failed on both counts, but I’m hoping we learn from this.”
In a virtual press conference held on Facebook Thursday morning, Kennedy Bartley, the legislative director for Chicago’s United Working Families, said that his organization had actively worked alongside local politicians last year to advocate for the city council’s input into how the city would spend the remaining federal funds.
“Despite those organizing efforts, the emergency powers ordinance passed, which gave the mayor authority over how those unrestricted funds would be spent,” she said.
“We have every right to be angry because I want you to know that every neighbor you have who was denied housing assistance, we were prepared. We could have offered them that assistance,” La Spata said during the joint press conference. “Every vacant storefront you see is a small business we could have supported with these dollars.”
The Office of Mayor Lightfoot did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment, but the Budget Office tweeted a breakdown of how the funds were used.
The office said that the mayor allocated millions toward relief efforts that helped Chicago residents, including $100 million to small businesses and $30 million on PPE and public facility disinfection efforts.
“Throughout this pandemic our first responders, including our police, firefighters, and EMTs stepped up and kept our communities safe—from performing wellness checks to securing testing sites and quarantine facilities. CARES Act funding has been a lifeline in this emergency,” a tweet from the budget office reads.
Lightfoot’s decision to spend federal funds on policing last year came to light earlier this month after the Mayor asked for the city council’s approval to roll over the remaining $65 million in unspent government COVID-19 aid into the city’s 2021 budget.
Despite repeated calls from local officials and activists to drastically defund the Chicago Police Department’s 1.6 billion budget as much as 75%, Lightfoot has been reluctant to embrace some of those ideas.
“In this moment in Chicago, we cannot responsibly enact any policies that make communities less safe,” Lightfoot said during a budget address in October, according to the Chicago Sun Times. “While we will slow the rate of growth, with a resulting $80 million in corporate fund savings, on my watch we will never make cuts or policy changes that inhibit the core mission of the police department, which is to serve and protect.”