Fact-Check: Sessions Wrong Again on Chicago Murder Spike Cause
Like President Donald Trump, who has claimed Chicago could solve its violence problem “in a week” by employing tougher tactics, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions frequently criticizes the city for policies he says hamstring its cops.
In a speech to a law enforcement audience in Chicago on Friday, Sessions once again blamed the city’s 2016 spike in murders on an agreement between the Emanuel administration and the American Civil Liberties Union that reined in stop-and-frisk policing.
“As a result of the agreement ... Chicago saw the biggest single-year increase in murders since we’ve had reliable statistics,” Sessions said. “Former federal judge Paul Cassell and Professor Richard Fowles of the University of Utah examined what happened here, considered a number of possible causes, and found that the cause of virtually all of the rise in homicides was the ACLU agreement.”
We fact-checked Sessions when he made virtually the same claim back in May.
It’s still Mostly False. Here’s why.
Causation versus correlation
Chicago entered an agreement with the ACLU to end its reliance on stop-and-frisk policing after the civil rights group threatened to take legal action. By 2016, the agreement was in full effect.
The agreement followed the release of a report by ACLU’s Illinois chapter that found Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as New Yorkers were before that city years earlier reined in its stop-and-frisk policing.
The Chicago agreement determined that going forward officers here would be trained to stop people for questioning only when there was a “reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.” The city also imposed more thorough documentation requirements for every stop made.
Cassell, a former federal judge and current law professor, and Richard Fowles, an economics professor, found that street stops by Chicago police decreased sharply following the agreement — from 40,000 monthly down to less than 10,000 per month.
The study attributed the significant uptick in homicides during the same time, from 480 in 2015 to 754 in 2016, to that decline in stops.
But experts we spoke with in May pointed to a number of flaws in the study, including its limited time frame and the fact that violent crime has declined or held steady in other cities that have backed away from stop-and-frisk policing.
Following the 2016 murder spike in Chicago, murders declined by 15 percent in 2017 — the steepest one-year reduction in nearly 15 years. And that figure is down again for 2018, dropping by a quarter since this time last year, according to data tracked by the Chicago Tribune.
Those declines occurred even though the city continues to follow the agreement with the ACLU.
Sessions’ argument is also weakened by the results in other cities that have taken similar steps to those in Chicago.
During his remarks, Sessions held up New York as a law enforcement success story, pointing to significant progress made in tamping down violent crime there over the last few decades.
“Last weekend there were zero murders in New York City for the first time in 25 years,” Sessions said. “In fact, there were no shootings at all in New York City last weekend.”
Sessions is right that today’s New York is much less violent than in years’ past. But the Big Apple makes for a curious pick in defending stop-and-frisk.
A federal judge ruled in 2013 that the way NYPD officers were stopping New Yorkers was unconstitutional, requiring them to change tactics. Even prior to the verdict, the department’s reliance on street stops was in decline. By the end of 2013, stops by police had plummeted from a 2011 high of more than 200,000 to 12,500.
By Sessions’ logic, curtailing stop-and-frisk should have triggered a murder spike like Chicago’s. Yet murders in New York have declined or held steady in the years since the federal ruling. Newark, Seattle and Philadelphia have also limited police stops in recent years without a corresponding jump in murders.
Meanwhile, even when Chicago was still stopping individuals at four times the rate of New York’s peak, gun seizures here dropped, detectives solved fewer murders and a decade-long decline in gun violence came to an end, a 2016 WBEZ investigation found.
The Utah research report that underpins Sessions’ conclusions blames the upsurge in murders on the ACLU agreement but dismisses any possibility it could be related to the intense local reaction to the late 2015 release of police dashcam footage that showed officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder earlier this month.
In response to the fallout from the video’s release, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired police chief Garry McCarthy in late 2015. McCarthy, who came to Chicago by way of the Newark and New York police departments, ran the Chicago department during the years when stops in this city outpaced New York’s.
Sessions said an agreement between the city of Chicago and the ACLU caused “virtually all of the rise in homicides” in 2016.
His claim repeats a finding from a University of Utah study that attributed Chicago’s 2016 murder spike to an agreement between the city and the civil rights group meant to rein in the city’s stop-and-frisk tactics.
Chicago’s murder toll did skyrocket that year, though it has declined since. The study has been criticized for its methods and for excluding other factors that could have played a role.
There is an element of truth in Sessions’ claim, but it also ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. Just like last time, we rate it Mostly False.
“Trump suggests Chicago could solve crime problem 'in a week' if cops got tougher,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 23, 2016
Speech: Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Chicago Crime Commission, Oct. 19, 2018
“Is the ACLU really to blame for Chicago’s murder spike?” PolitiFact Illinois, May 15, 2018
“Chicago homicides down sharply in 2017, still over 650 slain,” Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 31, 2017
Database: Chicago Homicide Victims, Chicago Tribune, accessed Oct. 22, 2018
“Donald Trump and Lester Holt clash over whether stop-and-frisk is constitutional in New York,” PolitiFact National, Sep. 28, 2016
“De Blasio on stop-and-frisk: 'We changed it intensely,’” Politico, Dec. 8, 2016
“Where Crime is Rising in 2016,” City Lab, Sep. 20, 2016
“Police Data Cast Doubt On Chicago-Style Stop-And-Frisk,” WBEZ, May 4, 2016