Thanks to the Chicago teachers’ union, 350,000 kids in the Windy City haven’t had to go to school for a week now. Many high-schoolers may be gleeful, but the strike is probably bad for them, and not just because they’re getting a late start on their studies: They’ll be spending a lot of presumably unsupervised time in one of the nation’s most homicidal cities.
Now, Chicago circa 2012 isn’t the worst place ever. Its problems are not of Detroit proportions. Its murder rate is lower than it was a few decades ago, although it has spiked this year and is now the highest of any alpha city — higher than São Paulo’s, more than twice that of Mexico City, and more than three times that of New York.
Chicago experienced 250 murders in the first half of the year, a 38 percent increase over last year’s figure. The murder tally in the city has fallen every year since 2008, but 2012 is on track to reverse that trend. So what’s going wrong in Chicago?
It’s hard to pinpoint why the body count is so high this year. A few criminologists who spoke with National Review Online think this spike could be a statistical anomaly: Just as the stock market is susceptible to peaks and troughs that are largely inexplicable, so are crime rates — ours not to reason why. The unseasonably warm weather, changes in public-housing policy, and depopulation all seem to play roles, at least small ones, in the increasing violence. But there are political factors as well, including unions and the centralization of administrative power, that may be contributing to the rising death tolls in President Obama’s hometown.
On paper, Chicago has a weak mayoralty for a large American city. But Aaron Renn, an urban analyst and the CEO of Telestrian, a data-analysis firm, argues that Chicago’s mayors traditionally have outsize influence over the city’s administration. Informal arrangements with cronies amplify the mayor’s clout far beyond the technical scope of his jurisdiction.
And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been taking full advantage of this concentration of power, failing to delegate responsibilities even when it would be prudent to do so. For instance, the head of the Chicago public schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, didn’t choose his senior staff; Emanuel chose them for him, according to Renn. “Even when they bring in an outsider,” Renn says, “he’s often effectively neutered because he’s kept under the thumb of political watchdogs.”
“The best way [for a mayor to handle policing] is to set the mission — like, reduce murders — and let the chief, the professional, figure out how best to do that,” says James “Chips” Stewart, a senior executive fellow at CNA Analysis and Solutions. But, in policing as in other matters, Emanuel appears to be following in the footsteps of his predecessors and calling some of the shots that should be called by the police chief.
“Rahm probably is imbued with the West Wing mindset, even apart from the way it worked under the Daleys, where the larger-than-life mayor called all the shots,” Renn says. “I would suggest that he’s very active in decision-making in the police department.”
At the beginning of his term, Emanuel did introduce one promising innovation, although with dubious results. One of his campaign promises was to put 1,000 more cops on the streets. The city couldn’t afford new hires, so he broke up anti-gang task forces and made those officers beat patrollers. Murder numbers have risen every month since he took office, but he still stands by his decision.
The department’s culture and unionization could be limiting the effectiveness of Emanuel’s decision to beef up the beat patrol. Eli Lehrer, president and co-founder of the think tank R Street, says the department is resistant to change. A high percentage of officers do desk jobs, and Emanuel has made departmental changes that will require many of them to take up patrol work. “You may have people who haven’t really worked on the street, haven’t really responded to 911 calls in years, suddenly thrown into new roles,” he says. “And they may be having trouble adjusting.” Further, union contracts can make it difficult to lay off employees who aren’t equipped to meet the requirements of the mayor’s new policy.
And it’s not just the police department that is difficult to change. “Chicago has really been resistant to outside thinking,” Renn says. “It’s in the Midwest. Like many cities, it has some degree of parochiality, but I would say to a greater degree than most.” This means that controversial new tactics such as New York’s stop-and-frisk could never be implemented, regardless of their potential to reduce violent crime.
Emanuel tries to do the police chief’s job and is then stymied by the union on one decision he does get right. As mayoral peremptoriness and union intransigence clash over how to run the police department, crime enjoys a holiday, like Chicago’s schoolchildren. And it’s Chicago’s citizens who suffer.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.