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Why Chicago’s Crime Problem Is Growing

February 4, 2017, at National Review

By John R. Lott, Jr.


Last week, President Donald Trump again expressed concern that the violence in Chicago was “totally out of control.” “We’re going to have to do something about Chicago,” the president said. While it’s unclear what Trump has in mind, it is undoubtedly true that the Chicago police department is a mess, with the city suffering ever increasing murder rates.

Some analysts, such as Heather Mac Donald in the Wall Street Journal, focus on the damage created by President Obama trying to run local police departments via the U.S. Justice Department, but the problems facing Chicago go well beyond that and certainly aren’t new.

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 finally left office 20 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.

Unfortunately, the true figure is even worse, because Chicago has been intentionally misclassifying murders as non-murders.

Nationally, in 2015, 61.5 percent of murders resulted in an arrest — almost two out of every three. And unlike Chicago’s arrest rate, the national rate has been fairly constant over the decades.

Chicago’s problems are a result of putting politics ahead of sensible policing for decades. For example, after becoming mayor, Emanuel did three unfortunate things to the Chicago police force:

1) Emanuel closed down detective bureaus in Chicago’s highest-crime districts, relocating them to often distant locations.

2) The mayor disbanded many gang task forces.

3) In cooperation with the ACLU, Emanuel instituted new, voluminous forms that have to be filled out by police each time they stop someone to investigate a crime. All this time wasted filling out forms is time that can’t be spent policing neighborhoods.

These policies have made it much more difficult to catch criminals, and when you don’t catch criminals, the 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 other areas of the city, their hard-earned, neighborhood-specific knowledge of likely culprits and informants now rendered irrelevant. As one detective told Chicago magazine, “All the expertise you once had is useless when you’re working on the other side of town. You might as well put me in a new city.”

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

If budget cuts necessitated closures, then 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 politically well-connected people who live there. So much for the Democrats’ claims that they care about poor minorities.

Chicago’s police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, blames gangs for the violence. Regarding all the murders over Christmas, Johnson was blunt about 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 the hard work that had allowed the police to infiltrate many gangs, is not something that can easily be undone.

The arrest rates are low for gang murders because witnesses are loath to get on a gang’s bad side. But in Chicago the situation is especially bad because witnesses have very little hope that gang members will ever be put away.

The agreement with the ACLU was a politically motivated result of Laquan McDonald’s videotaped shooting by police. Emanuel caused a stronger backlash by delaying the release of the video until after his reelection.

As arrest rates have fallen and murder rates have risen, Daley and Emanuel have kept pushing responsibility on 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 that’s why the crusade is on.” Emanuel has made similar claims. The problem of unsolved crimes 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 — not only in absolute terms, but also relative to adjacent counties and other large cities. Democrats need to learn that gun control primarily disarms law-abiding citizens.

Police matter in crime prevention — and so do policing policies. Chicago’s problems run much deeper than something that has occurred over the last couple years. The city’s politicians need to stop trying to buck their responsibility for their failed policies.

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