NEAR WEST SIDE — Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson backed off controversial statements about policing as they laid out vastly different ideas for how they would combat violent crime at a Tuesday night debate.

Hosted at the UIC Forum by a coalition of anti-violence groups, the debate focused on a range of public safety and violence prevention strategies — topics which have become the central issue in the mayor’s race.

A former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Vallas came in first of nine candidates in the Feb. 28 general election, receiving 33 percent of the vote. Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner, followed with about 22 percent, according to unofficial results. They will go head-to-head in the April 4 runoff election.

Throughout the campaign, Vallas has pledged to hire more police officers to fill vacancies throughout the department, while also promising a return to “beat integrity” where officers are consistently deployed to the same districts and neighborhoods.

Vallas has also endorsed replacing the CTA’s private security guards with uniformed police officers under a dedicated unit.

Johnson has focused his public safety plan on addressing the “root causes of crime,” and prioritizing non-police responses to mental health crises and domestic disputes.

He has repeatedly vowed to “hire and promote” 200 detectives if elected mayor, but said Tuesday that Chicagoans will not be any safer with increased police funding or more officers.

“Police officers are being asked to be social workers, counselors, therapists. That is a recipe for disaster. When mental health crises occurs, and the only equipment on the scene are guns, this is a failure,” Johnson said. “We have to reopen our mental health centers to actually get at the root causes of violence.”

Vallas said Tuesday police officers cannot be the “only responders” to 911 calls, but current police staffing shortages are a “recipe for catastrophe.” If elected mayor, he’d bring back “community-based policing” that Vallas said has worked for Chicago in the past.

“Community policing fundamentally means, you have beat officers on every beat. So every single beat is covered by a patrol car, manned with officers. Officers know the community, and are known by name and by badge number, by the community,” Vallas said. “There’s no better accountability than that.”

Moderators ABC 7 political analyst Laura Washington and former Tribune columnist Eric Zorn pressed both candidates on previous statements about policing and public safety.

In a 2020 radio interview, Johnson described defunding the police as an “actual, real political goal,” not just a slogan.

Pressed for his stance on the issue Tuesday, Johnson claimed while he “said it was a political goal. I never said it was mine.” He added he would examine the police department budget as mayor to see if it’s been funded in an “equitable way.”

“Right now there are maybe three to four graphic designers on the police force,” he said. “Now maybe graphic designers keep us safer, perhaps, but we have to at the very least look at the budget and see if it’s being appropriated an equitable way that actually gets at the root causes and solves the immediate crisis of public safety in the city of Chicago.”

During a press conference after the debate, Johnson was asked to clarify if he meant that it was in fact not his policy to defund the police.

“That’s exactly what I meant, because that’s exactly what you heard,” he said.

Johnson has supported efforts to scale back funding for policing as a Cook County commissioner.

He introduced the Justice For Black Lives resolution to the county board in 2020, which advocated redirecting dollars away from incarceration and policing toward initiatives such as health care, restorative justice and job creation to reduce crime.

Proponents, including Johnson, did not offer the ordinance as a direct response to organizers’ demands to “defund the police.” At the time, Johnson said the non-binding resolution “was not about laying people off, consolidations or closures,” but rather “calling for an expansion of government services.”

Zorn also asked Vallas during the debate if he stood by past comments about the need to “take the handcuffs off police,” adding that it sounded like a “recipe” for misconduct that could lead to legal issues for the city.

Vallas questioned whether he had ever made that statement, but the moderators cited a Sun-Times article in December where the candidate said, “there are not enough police cars to respond to 911 priority calls. The officers we do have are demoralized and handcuffed.”

“There is no incentive to engage in proactive policing. And the criminals know it, and they’re becoming bolder. There is an utter breakdown of law and order,” Vallas said at the time.

At the debate, Vallas said he supports police reform and would ensure the department complied with the federal consent decree.

“The bottom line is, I’ve talked about it over and over again…Is to restore proactive policing, and proactive policing that is consistent with the consent decree,” he said. “Proactive policing is not taking the handcuffs off. Proactive policing isn’t mass incarceration, proactive policing isn’t mass arrests or even stop and frisk.”

The candidates also differed on how they would adequately staff the Chicago Police Department, which has faced officer shortages. Vallas said he’d rehire retired cops and those who have transferred out of the city, a platform he’s mentioned frequently on the campaign trail.

“I know for a fact that hundreds of officers would return from retirement and rejoin the ranks. There are also hundreds of officers that have already communicated to their union that they would have an interest in coming back if there was new leadership, if there was a consistent schedule,” he said.

Johnson did not answer directly, instead saying the question itself was misguided.

“The fact that we are spending so much time talking about policing and we’re not talking about economic opportunities and jobs, that is the failure of all this,” Johnson said.

Moderators ended the forum asking both candidates if they would commit to an “annual reduction goal” of homicides if elected mayor.

Chicago reported 695 homicides in 2022 and 804 in 2021, according to the police department, up sharply from 500 in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson declined to commit to a specific threshold as mayor, but said “what is now can’t be a year from now.”

“Here’s the thing: we have actually never really fully tried to do the things that I’m proposing. … A better, stronger, safer Chicago. Yes, that’s the measurement,” he said, repeating one of his go-to campaign slogans.

Vallas said he didn’t see returning to pre-COVID homicide numbers as progress; rather that “if I don’t get us under 500 murders a year, then I will have been a failure.”

“If I don’t put us on a track to get us far below that level….my epitaph will not be one that has an epitaph of success,” he said.

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