In a year when police brutality sparked nationwide protests and Cicero, Illinois, made headlines for its own episode of civil unrest, the town spent all its discretionary federal COVID-19 relief money on police officer salaries, according to documents Cicero Independiente obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Last year, Cicero, a majority Latinx, working-class suburb next to Chicago, had more COVID-19 cases than the Cook County average and in May was among the top five ZIP codes reporting some of the highest positivity rates in the state. As a result, the town received $1,074,912 under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, more than was allotted to any other suburb in Cook County. Overall, in 2020, the county received about $428.6 million in CARES money, $51 million of which was disbursed to local governments.
The CARES Act was established to help local governments pay for COVID-19 recovery and response. Qualifying expenses include medical and health-related costs, payroll for public safety, and other pandemic-related costs incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30 last year.
During that period, Cicero’s COVID-19 numbers increased, peaking in November, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health. It wasn’t until the end of May 2020 that a Cicero-based COVID testing site opened.
The town’s high fund allocation was based on a distribution model created by the county and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), an agency that strategizes to address housing, transportation and quality-of-life issues. The distribution takes into account a community’s population, median income and public health statistics, along with the percentage of residents living in economically disinvested areas.
Chicago also spent much of its CARES relief money on police, bringing harsh criticism from activists saying Mayor Lori Lightfoot should have invested those funds into the community.
Relief spending was meant to focus on a municipality’s immediate pandemic-related needs.
According to a county report, about 42% of the total the county received from the U.S. Treasury Department, or $181.7 million, went toward police department labor costs. “This is consistent with how many jurisdictions throughout the country used the CARES Act funding, in line with guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department,” said Ted Nelson, public information officer for the Cook County Bureau of Finance.
In an email, Ray Hanania, the spokesperson for the town of Cicero, echoed that view: “We feel the funds were spent the way they were intended to help the community deal with Coronavirus.” Asked why the CARES allotment went toward police officers’ regular pay, Hanania wrote that “the money was also used to fund the entire operation of the town’s vaccination programs and is currently still funding it.”
But documents obtained via record requests show Cicero used the CARES Act relief fund exclusively to pay officers’ wages. And the town’s vaccination efforts did not start until January 2021—one month after the money was supposed to have been spent, according to the funding application. Hanania did not respond to further requests for clarification.
Under Treasury Department guidelines, police payroll is an eligible expense for CARES relief as long as officers’ “services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.” In Cicero, all the funds were used to pay the regular salary of at least 23 of the town’s 146 police officers between April and September 2020. It is unclear whether those police were involved in any COVID-19 relief efforts; Hanania did not respond to questions about what duties the officers performed during that time.
In 2020, the town of Cicero had a budget of about $32 million for its police department. A little over $17 million from that total is to cover the police officer salaries.
In Chicago, last summer, during demonstrations protesting the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Lightfoot closed access to the downtown area when some people began damaging property and breaking into stores. Soon after, on June 1, unrest erupted in Cicero, where at least 60 people were arrested, two were killed and many were injured. Hanania didn’t comment on whether any CARES relief funds went toward paying officers deployed that day.
As of June 2021 Cicero had 13,565 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and since March 2020, more than 200 of its residents have died from a COVID-19-related illness, according to the county medical examiner’s office. Today, the Cicero and Berwyn area offer multiple vaccine sites, including a mobile facility. But only about 32,376 of Cicero’s residents, or 39.4% of its population, are completely vaccinated.
At the height of the pandemic, online and through social media, the town promoted numerous sponsored events offering local assistance. In a separate application for federal COVID-19 relief, Cicero’s public action plan listed goals of expanding access to personal protective equipment, easing unemployment caused by the pandemic, establishing a committee to gather data on the virus and track the spread, and helping struggling small businesses afford to comply with protective protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Enhancing food services at Unity Junior High School and for senior citizens was also an aim.
The application did not identify police salaries as a funding priority or need.