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Chicago's Bloody Mess

January 7, 2017, at Real Clear Policy

By John R. Lott, Jr.


Chicago is a bloody mess. Last year, Chicago had 762 homicides — more than New York and Los Angeles combined. This represents an astounding 57 percent increase from the 2015 murder rate. 

On Sunday night, CBS’s 60 Minutes rightfully expressed concernabout the fall in stops and arrests by police over the last year. Criminals have seemingly become emboldened as a result of the decrease in arrests. The 60 Minutes piece quotes Garry McCarthy — Chicago’s Police Superintendent up until a year ago — as saying that “officers are under attack, that is how they feel.”

This isn’t a new trend. The quality of Chicago’s policing has been deteriorating for decades. Back in 1991, 67 percent of murderers were arrested. When Mayor Richard M. Daley left office twenty years later, in 2011, the arrest rate was down to 30 percent. This troubling drop only continued after Rahm Emanuel became mayor, hitting a new low of 20 percent in 2016. (See graph below.) Unfortunately, the true number is even worse, because Chicago has been intentionally misclassifying murders, instead labeling them as subject to non-criminal “death investigations.”

Nationally, police solve 61.5 percent of murders — almost two out of every three. And, unlike Chicago’s arrest rate, the national rate has been fairly constant over the decades.

Donald Trump’s tweeted hope to Chicago on Monday: “If Mayor can’t do it he must ask for Federal help!” But for politicians who can’t help making decisions based on politics, what really matters is what they can’t do, not what they won’t do.  

Chicago’s problem is the result of bad political decisions. For example, after his election, Emanuel did three unfortunate things that hampered the Chicago police force. The mayor: closed down detective bureaus in Chicago's highest crime districts, relocating them to often distant locations; disbanded many gang task forces; and, in cooperation with the ACLU, instituted new, voluminous forms that have to be filled out by police each time they stop someone to investigate a crime. All this time filling out forms is time that can’t be spent policing neighborhoods. When you don’t catch criminals, the obvious result is more crime. 

The detective bureau relocations have been disastrous. Detectives who had worked for years in high-crime neighborhoods suddenly found themselves working in other areas of the city, their hard-earned, neighborhood-specific knowledge of likely culprits andinformants now rendered irrelevant. As one detective told Chicago Magazine, All the expertise you once had is useless when youre working on the other side of town. You might as well put me in a new city. 

Moving detectives from crime hotspots also meant long travel times. These delays were not only a waste of time; they made detectives less effective at doing their jobs by tracking down witnesses and keeping track of evidence. The result was more unsolved crimes.

If budget cuts necessitated closures, detective bureaus in low-crime areas ought to have been considered first. But that would have met with tougher political resistance because of the affluent and well-connected people who live there. So much for politicians’ promises to look out for poor minorities. 

Chicago’s Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson blames gangs. Regarding the spate of murders over Christmas, Johnson was bluntabout the source of the violence: “These were deliberate and planned shootings by one gang against another…This was followed by several acts of retaliation.” But Emanuel’s decision early in his administration to gut gang task forces — a move that undid hard work which allowed police to infiltrate gangs — is not something that can easily be reversed. 

Arrest rates for gang murders are typically very low because witnesses are loath to get on a gang’s bad side. But in Chicago it has gotten worse because witnesses don’t believe that gang members will ever be put away. 

As arrest rates have fallen and murder rates have risen over the years, Daley and Emanuel have kept pushing responsibility on to others. After all, they claim, it isn’t their fault that state legislatures and the U.S. Congress haven’t passed sufficiently strict gun control laws. Back in 2010, Daley claimed that the increased crime rate was “all about guns, and thats why the crusade is on.” Emanuel has made similarclaims. Meanwhile, the long-term drop in the rate that crimes are solved seems to have gone unnoticed.

Democrats have learned nothing from Chicago’s failed experiment in banning guns, which began in late 1982. After the ban, the city’s murder rates stopped falling and started soaring — in both absolute terms and relative to adjacent counties and other large cities. The lesson for Democrats should have been that gun control does nothing but disarm law-abiding citizens.

Chicago’s crime problems run much deeper than anything that has occurred over the last year. Politicians need to stop putting the blame elsewhere and look to their own failed policies.

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