Gregory Pratt and Jeremy Gorner
Standing across from boarded-up businesses Thursday evening on the suddenly not-so-Magnificent Mile, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown said the city put an extra 1,000 cops on the street in recent days in the hope it would prevent looters from again rampaging through downtown.
And on Friday, more response plans came into focus, with Brown promising better intelligence and rapid deployment of police resources to defend the city. The Chicago Police Department is ready, he said, to make arrests and head off the kind of destruction that shocked the city this week.
But not everyone is so sure.
Days after one of the biggest crises Mayor Lori Lightfoot has faced, some city officials wondered out loud about City Hall’s ability to handle another wave of looting like the one that hit in the early morning hours Monday. Scrutiny of Lightfoot has grown, with questions remaining even after Friday’s announcement of a new plan, including why new defensive tactics weren’t already in place after looting earlier this year amid unrest after the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd.
Without them, Chicago was caught flat-footed. City Hall and law enforcement sources familiar with the situation said there was no specific plan in place to deal with the kind of problem that unfolded rapidly downtown, when seemingly coordinated caravans of looters began ransacking stores.
Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, said the repeat incident is alarming.
“I think the mayor, her public safety office, the superintendent, are not ready, not prepared, and are not learning from the mistakes and the lost opportunities for the first riot and protest so we fell victim a second time,” Lopez said. “What worries me is I’m seeing all the same bad decisions being made again. We’re setting ourselves up for a three-peat Chicago doesn’t want.”
Authorities have said a call for looting may have spread over social media in the wake of the shooting by police of a 20-year-old in Englewood, though they have not released the posts they base that claim on.
Brown on Monday said 400 cops were dispatched to prevent looting after police noticed the online threat. But many officers who were part of that response scrambled from other parts of the city as the problem was escalating.
It took until Friday for Lightfoot and Brown to announce detailed plans to prevent another such episode: Police will start a 20-person unit to monitor social media around the clock; they will redeploy faster in the face of a looting threat; they will work with the city to put in place measures for a “geographic lockdown,” such as raising bridges over the river; and they will work with state and federal partners to maximize the criminal cases looters will face.
Asked at the Friday announcement of the plans why it had taken until then to formulate such a strategy, Lightfoot disputed criticism that her administration has been slow to react.
“It’s not what took so long. When we see new challenges and threats to our city, we have to be nimble, we have to adjust,” she said.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes much of the area looted last weekend, said he supports the plan presented Friday by Lightfoot.
“What was outlined today, I felt, was necessary and appropriate, and it seems like we are moving in the right direction to take the necessary steps that this doesn’t happen again,” Hopkins said.
But Hopkins, who was critical of the Lightfoot administration’s handling of last Sunday night’s troubles, expressed some reservations.
“One of the problems with this mayor that we’ve come to recognize is her words and her actions are not always fully in alignment,” Hopkins said.
The tumultuous chain of events that preceded the looting began about 2:30 p.m. Aug. 9 when 20-year-old Latrell Allen was shot by Chicago police in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, allegedly after he fired first.
Not long afterward, authorities said misinformation spread over social media that police had shot and killed a 15-year-old boy.
Several hours later, about five minutes before midnight, police said they first got word about a social media post about caravans of vehicles that might be headed toward downtown for looting.
Around the same time, police said they learned break-ins were occurring near 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway. And some 35 minutes later, close to 12:30 a.m. Monday, groups of vehicles were arriving downtown, their occupants scattering and raiding stores.
City officials said Lightfoot herself became engaged in the early hours of Monday morning.
Traffic jammed the streets as looters jumped out to break windows of high-end retailers along the Magnificent Mile, in the Gold Coast and other areas. Some looters were seen calmly hauling stacks of clothes and other goods on foot.
“This was an incredibly chaotic situation and it evolved rapidly,” Chicago police spokeswoman Margaret Huynh said in an email.
Undermanned police repeatedly pulled up in squad cars with their blue emergency lights flashing to shoo away groups of looters, only for them to return to the stores when the cops left. Stores were broken into more than 2 miles outside the Loop, including at a Best Buy on the North Side.
By about 4 a.m., the looting began to dissipate. Shattered glass, broken mannequins, shoe boxes and trash were strewed on downtown streets.
By sunrise, the sounds of bells blared throughout an otherwise quiet downtown. Officials by then had raised bridges over the Chicago River, cutting off vehicle movement.
Two police supervisors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media, pointed to a lack of organization on the part of Chicago police to effectively manage the unrest as it escalated.
One of them who worked downtown during the looting said mobilizing 400 cops can be difficult to attempt at the drop of a hat. It can take 45 minutes to mobilize large groups of officers, and it typically only happens in response to a situation that has already begun.
“You can’t move resources until you see something concrete,” said the police supervisor. “It could be nonsense … That’s a huge undertaking.”
The supervisor said there was no time for the department to plan on which officers were doing what.
“They only had like 15 minutes of warning,” the supervisor said. “(The looters) didn’t care who was there.”
At Friday’s news conference, Lightfoot and Brown promised police would be ready to more rapidly deploy from other parts of the city at any sign of trouble. Police did not detail how they planned to make that happen.
Another issue in the early hours of Monday, several sources said, was a failure to raise downtown bridges sooner to cut off access to some of the city’s top shopping areas on the Near North Side.
Huynh, the police spokeswoman, said officers on the scene wanted the bridges raised “immediately” after they arrived, but referred questions to the Chicago Department of Transportation. That department’s spokesman, Michael Claffey, said the city right away deployed 30 employees to raise all 14 downtown bridges, but the bridges did not begin to go up until 4 a.m.
Lightfoot and Brown said that issue would be addressed as well, with police better coordinating with city officials to make a decision on raising them quicker and limiting access to downtown.
On last Sunday night, Hopkins said, what the city seemed to try was a step late, and little seemed to work.
“We waited for the looters to get tired, the stores and shelves to be empty, and the looting stopped,” he said. “We simply had no ability to stop it ourselves, period.”
“It was an endless game of whack-a-mole where the moles never really got whacked,” he said.
Police did make about 100 arrests. No defendants who had appeared in court so far have directly mentioned the Englewood incident, and did not appear to be from the neighborhood.
Adam Bercovici, a security consultant and former Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant, stressed that officers need to take an aggressive stance against looters, and the officers need to be quick on their feet and organized in those situations, something CPD now pledges it will be.
“You need to have arrest circles or arrest teams that come in and take specific looters or ringleaders into custody,” Bercovici said. “If it’s a straight looting, criminal stuff, you need to just grab those people that you think are the ringleaders and get them out of there.”
“If you don’t organize it, if you don’t train for it, you’re basically throwing hundreds of people against hundreds of people and you end up having … some chaos,” Bercovici said.
In the wake of the latest round of looting, businesses in the downtown area expressed concern to city officials about the unrest. The head of a prominent local property management firm sent Lightfoot a scathing letter saying ensuring the well-being of residents “has been made exponentially more difficult in recent months due to the lack of responsiveness” from city officials.
In the letter, Steven P. Levy, president of Sudler Property Management, said Chicago homeowners his company represents don’t feel safe.
“From Hyde Park to the Gold Coast to Edgewater, residents across the city are adjusting their daily routines out of fear,” Levy wrote to Lightfoot.
Lightfoot on Friday said she fully understood the gravity of the situation, and that no resident or business owner should feel unsafe living or working here.
Kimberly Bares, CEO of the Magnificent Mile Association, said she’s implored the city before and after Monday morning’s looting to maintain “permanent resources” of cops in the Central patrol district, which includes the Loop, and the Near North patrol district that covers the Magnificent Mile, Streeterville and other parts of downtown. Officials Friday said they would increase police deployment numbers.
At times late this week, North Michigan Avenue has been flooded with cops.
To avoid a repeat of the destruction from earlier in the week, Brown said the Police Department was prepared to throw as many officers as it takes to protect downtown and the retail corridors in the neighborhoods.
“Chicago does not belong to looters and thieves,” Brown said Friday. “Chicago belongs to the good people who work hard every day to earn an honest living.”
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