Chicago Mayor Defends Spending $281 Million in COVID-19 Federal Funding on Police

The mayor of Chicago on Feb. 19 said criticism over the city’s spending of nearly $300 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on the Chicago Police Department was “dumb.”

“Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, told reporters in a briefing.

Last year, the city’s budget director told officials that none of the federal money was used for the police department. But Chicago’s Office of Budget and Management confirmed on Feb. 18 that the city was permitted by federal authorities to use $470 million for personnel costs. Over half of that chunk—$281 million—went to the police.

Lightfoot said the funds went to police payroll costs and that the money helped the city avoid larger budget deficits. Chicago is facing a $1.2 billion shortfall this year.

Chicago received about $1.2 billion from the U.S. government after Congress approved the massive CARES Act, a relief package, in the spring of 2020.

“The federal government through the CARES Act funding gave us the opportunity to seek reimbursement for the expenses related to COVID-19 response, whether it was law enforcement, whether it was [health department] funds, and of course, on behalf of taxpayers in the city of Chicago, we took advantage of that and used those monies so that it didn’t result in an even further deficit that would have been borne by our taxpayers,” the mayor said.

“We saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by saying yes to the federal government. So should we have said no? ‘No, no, no, no, no, federal government, we’ll incur this expense, we’ll put this burden entirely on city of Chicago taxpayers, and you can take your money elsewhere.’ That would be foolish, and of course we didn’t do that.”

The Office of Budget and Management said that the city also spent more than $94 million in relief funds on housing assistance, more than $100 million on small-business aid, and nearly $300 million on public health agencies.

Chicago has seen a high murder rate for years. The rate in January was the highest for the month in four years, with 51 killings. Activists have argued that officers aren’t doing their jobs well and pushed to give the department less funding.

Activist groups like the United Working Families said earlier in the week that the city shouldn’t have used any of the money for the department, while also taking aim at how Chicago left $68 million unspent.

Kennedy Bartley, the legislative director for the group, told reporters in a call: “Not only was this a gross mismanagement of really funds in the middle of a pandemic, it was also a betrayal of public trust. And with the funds that are coming after this round of federal relief negotiations, we just can’t let this happen again.”

Amika Tendaji, executive director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, said: “The CARES Act money should have gone to our cousins, our family members who did not have enough [equipment] 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.”