Outgoing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot used a weekly meeting with police chiefs on Tuesday to demand answers about why officers apparently struggled to control crowds of young people who gathered downtown over the weekend, damaging vehicles and leading to the circulation of viral videos of the chaos, sources familiar with the situation said.
The chaos in the city’s tourist district late Saturday sparked renewed concerns about the Chicago Police Department’s ability to handle crowds of teenagers and young adults caught on cell phone cameras blocking traffic and jumping on top of a CTA bus.
Aldermen called the response “inadequate,” especially given the warm weather and past impromptu youth gatherings, including on 31st Street Beach.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward extends into the downtown Streeterville neighborhood, was particularly concerned about the ongoing street violence.
“The fact that it happened repeatedly, without any apparent adjustment in the tactical response of the police, just shows a lack of commitment from the superintendent and the deputy chiefs,” Hopkins said.
This weekend may have marked the first time many rookies in a junior police force faced a large gathering, the councilor said. “There was so much confusion,” he said. “I heard a lot of evidence of a lack of command on the ground … and we were also lacking.”
Large gatherings of youth downtown have remained a vexing problem for police officials for the past decade. Organized over social media, typically during the hot summer months, the crowds of teenagers have sometimes turned violent.
It will now be up to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson to try to remedy the problem. Johnson was elected without the support of the city’s largest police union, narrowly defeating Paul Vallas, who ran on a tough-on-crime platform.
Last year, the city grappled with an event that many believed had brought the issue of such teen gatherings to a head.
Eleven months ago, dozens of young people gathered near Cloud Gate, the sculpture in Millennium Park known as The Bean. A fight broke out and 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was fatally shot. A 17-year-old boy was later charged in the shooting, and his criminal case remains pending in Cook County Circuit Court.
After Holliday was killed, Lightfoot imposed a curfew at Millennium Park that prohibited unaccompanied minors from entering the park after 10 p.m. Some police sources said an increased presence downtown is expected in the coming weeks.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said it is up to the new city council and mayor-elect to find ways to prevent teen violence and confrontations. But a curfew is not the answer, he said.
“Teen curfews have little or no impact and instead may lead to more violence,” Ramirez-Rosa said
Critics of the Millennium Park curfew have said that the inability of teenagers to congregate in spaces that are supposed to be safe could lead to more problems in the neighborhoods in which they live.
The curfew last year appeared to slow the momentum of the gatherings, but unseasonably warm weekend weather brought more young people to downtown Chicago, apparently seeking to challenge police, signaling the problem is not going away.
The officers who responded late Saturday focused on containing the crowd of hundreds rather than moving into the fight, Hopkins said. The strategy allowed the gathering to continue, he added.
A Walgreens was looted, a burglary was attempted at the Art Institute, two Chicago Transit Authority buses were attacked, the windows and windshields of a number of motorists were smashed, a couple was beaten and robbed, a police officer suffered a broken bone, another officer was bullied and had his radio stolen and two teenagers were shot, Hopkins said.
“It was one thing after another. And the police response was just inadequate,” he said.
Hopkins, who supported Vallas, said the new Superintendent Johnson will choose needs to have strong plans to prevent gatherings from getting out of control and bring unruly congregations back to order.
As a matter of course, CPD monitors activity across social media platforms and keeps an eye on large gatherings. With last weekend’s unseasonably warm temperatures, young people encouraged each other to meet downtown on Saturday.
However, several high-ranking police officials — those typically in charge of the downtown area — were unavailable to take command as the hundreds of teenagers roamed the Loop, according to a CPD supervisor who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two managers, including Area 3 Deputy Chief Jill Stevens, were on leave and the Central District captain was on vacation, according to the CPD supervisor.
Deputy Chief Matt Cline was designated as the department’s street deputy on Saturday, and he was eventually called downtown to lead the department’s response, the supervisor said. Before Cline’s arrival, no downtown officers had a rank above lieutenant, which prohibited them from requesting more officers to help, the source said.
Around 9 p.m., a 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy were shot in the right arm and left leg, respectively, as they were “standing in a crowd” near Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, according to police. No one was arrested in connection with the shooting, but police later said nine adults and six juveniles were arrested.
“The reckless, disruptive and violent behavior seen downtown this past weekend will not be tolerated,” CPD said in a statement issued Monday night. “We encourage our young people to be safe and responsible while enjoying their weekends, but anyone involved in criminal activity will be arrested and held accountable.”
The chaos downtown rattled a business community still recovering in many ways from closures linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lynn Osmond, president of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism office, sent an email assuring “partners” that CPD “provided assurances that they will provide additional resources in response to the incidents this weekend.”
“We all know that the national perception of Chicago does not match reality — we are a spectacular, beautiful city that is surely enjoyed every day by millions of locals and visitors,” Osmond wrote. “At the same time, we, along with many of our peer cities across the country, continue to face very serious public safety challenges that must be addressed.”
Johnson was scheduled to meet with business leaders on Monday, though he has been largely silent on specific ways he could respond and prevent the situation from happening again. He issued a statement in the wake of the problematic youth meeting.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox every afternoon.
“I in no way condone the destructive activity we saw in the loop and lakefront this weekend. It is unacceptable and has no place in our city,” Johnson said. “However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”
Hopkins is among those looking for quick fixes and a stronger police response next time.
He pointed to the 2012 NATO summit, where police spent months planning and rehearsing tactics for anticipated protests. Chicago again needs a comprehensive plan paired with clear communication and specific training, he said.
“This is a top priority because the department right now is in some disarray,” Hopkins said.
The Chicago Tribune’s Laura Rodriguez Presa and Gregory Pratt contributed.