Fighting Crime? Maybe Our Crime-Fighters Should Stop Fighting First.
BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.
There are no easy answers when it comes to solving Chicago’s troubles with violent crime. That much is obvious. Are there any answers at all? So far, few have emerged.
A particularly violent 2021 ended without any meaningful sign of progress toward peace on the streets. And it doesn’t help that we are headed into the new year with Chicago's mayor, the Cook County state's attorney and the chief judge of the criminal courts bickering about who is at fault.
It’s not a good look for the public officials. Their focus on blame-laying does nothing for people across the city who just want the homicides and shootings to stop, along with the carjackings and outrageous larceny.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Chief Judge Tim Evans are making so little progress in part because they can't get past their differences and just get to work on coordinating efforts to address what's going wrong.
Presumably, Lightfoot, Foxx and Evans all want what the people want: a safer city and a more just criminal justice system. But their egos, politics and just plain stubbornness are standing in the way.
Lightfoot cites several reasons Chicago saw more than 800 homicides in 2021. But she has mounted a bully pulpit over the last few weeks, hurling scorn at the Cook County Courts’ use of pretrial release and electronic monitoring of accused criminals, a court-reform effort by Evans that Lightfoot sees as a root cause of the city’s violence.
At a Jan. 3 press conference, Lighftoot enumerated more than 1,700 people released with ankle bracelets despite charges of murder, sex crimes, carjacking, kidnapping and more. “Do you feel safer knowing these numbers?” Lightfoot asked. “No sane person does. I’m sorry, but murderers, rapists, people who are carjacking with guns should not be out on the street.”
Evans pushed back. In a statement responding to Lightfoot's petition for a moratorium on pretrial release of people accused of violent crimes, he said ankle bracelets aren’t the problem. And it would be unconstitutional, Evans argued, to deny bail to people based solely on the charges they face. And Evans previously supplied data that implies the number of people on early release aren't materially contributing to the recent crime wave.
Foxx has been spared Lightfoot's public scorn lately. But Lightfoot has promoted a narrative that Foxx’s reluctance to bring charges, even in the wake of shootings and other crimes that terrorize neighborhoods, is emboldening criminals and feeding the rise in violence.
Foxx parries Lightfoot's critique by pointing back at Chicago’s police. They can’t close nearly enough cases, in Foxx’s view, and without the cases, she can't charge people with crimes.
The Lightfoot-Foxx acrimony flared in October, when they held dueling press conferences following a gang shootout in the Austin neighborhood. Lightfoot blasted the state’s attorney’s refusal to bring felony charges in a broad-daylight gun battle caught on video and witnessed by police—and especially Foxx's finding that those involved were "mutual combatants."
An emotional Foxx countered, explaining the evidence just wasn’t there. She broadened the defense of her office's approach, directing reporters to the state’s attorney’s online dashboard, a public data tool that shows Foxx’s lawyers approved nearly 75% of the felony cases presented by Chicago cops last year.
Back and forth it goes. And that leaves the people of Chicago with little hope for a better result in the new year. The dissonances cloud the rosy picture these public officials paint of their efforts to crack down on crime, while also reforming racial biases and other problems in the Chicago-area criminal justice system.
Police Superintendent David Brown did just that at Lightfoot's stormy press conference, saying he’ll get enough new detectives to substantially reduce each detective’s caseload. Applications to join the police force are up, which could help reduce demands for overtime work that are burdening police officers. Federal agents will bolster the CPD push to seize illegal guns. And one of Brown’s signature initiatives—“positive interactions” between police and community members—should more than double this year, to 1.2 million, he said.
If that sounds like good intentions, but not nearly enough, you’re hearing it right. The surge in violence is more powerful than these measures, and there's scant evidence that merely reinforcing tactics that haven't worked will solve the city's crime problem. Worse still, the chances of success are undermined by the fact that the city’s chief public-safety officials simply can’t get along.
Lightfoot, Evans and Foxx each have their points, but they all need to step back from their disputes and coordinate their efforts for the greater good.
Evans’ push for bail reform is rooted in a push for justice, but it’s difficult to countenance a program in which 5% of those released were identified beforehand as presenting a risk of committing a new violent crime. Foxx needs to double down on efforts to clarify her standards for bringing criminal charges, so cops know what they need to make a case. Brown’s police force needs to close more cases, and faster, while continuing the progressive reforms the police chief values and a court-monitored consent decree demands.
As for Lightfoot, her passion is sincere, but her aggressive approach is backfiring yet again. A productive middle ground with her public-safety colleagues can be found, if only she can tone down her rhetoric and open her mind.
The year is starting, which resets the tally of crime statistics that has risen sharply for two consecutive years. Lightfoot, Foxx and Evans have each had their say. The time is long overdue to stop throwing brickbats, join forces, and just get to work.