In Chicago, two momentous things are happening at once. First, in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting — where a white officer shot a black teenager, who was armed with a small knife, 16 times, even as McDonald appeared to be walking away — Chicago police and prosecutors are facing a Department of Justice investigation and intense public scrutiny. Second, as the investigation and accompanying political controversy unfold, Chicago’s murder rate has surged by 84 percent, and shootings have almost doubled.
Here we go again. Last year, the major cities most roiled by conflict over police shootings and police misconduct also saw murder rates spike dramatically — leading to debate over whether more-timid policing was at least partially responsible for the increase in mayhem. FBI director James Comey last October described a “chill wind” blowing through law enforcement and said that officers felt as if they were “under siege.”
By the end of the year, there was evidence that the so-called Ferguson effect — the term for crime spikes arguably due to changes in police tactics — had gone national. Murders in major cities increased by 17 percent, the largest rise in 25 years.
Is the Ferguson effect at work in Chicago? It’s always dangerous to ascribe any single cause to either increases or decreases in crime rates. Crime is a complex sociological and cultural phenomenon, but it is difficult to see specific changes, aside from policing, that could have contributed to the spike. Gangs are reportedly more fragmented, and social media can escalate disputes. But gangs have long been a fact of life, and social media wasn’t invented in 2016. But there is this, as reported in the New York Times:
Since January, [Chicago] officers have recorded 20,908 instances in which they stopped, patted down and questioned people for suspicious behavior, compared with 157,346 in the same period last year. Gun seizures are also down: 1,316 guns have been taken off the streets this year compared with 1,413 at this time last year.
After the American Civil Liberties Union complained that officers allegedly disproportionately targeted minorities for stops, the department implemented paperwork requirements that likely slowed police activity. And there’s little question that officers are skittish. As the Times reported, the department’s interim superintendent made a rare video address to his officers and specifically discussed their fear of being in the “next YouTube video that goes viral.”
#share#It is true that Chicago’s murder rate hasn’t yet hit the highs seen during the worst days of the crack epidemic, and it is also true that not every major city is seeing increases in homicides (murders are down in New York, for example). However, the increases in casualties in America’s major cities absolutely dwarfs the number of controversial (or even questionable) police shootings. Far more black lives have been lost this year in Chicago alone than the number of unarmed black men killed by police nationwide in 2015.
Rogue police officers must be prosecuted, but we are increasingly demanding the impossible from law enforcement — that they maintain order in the streets in a manner that looks great on camera and breaks down neatly along demographic lines. But dealing with violent gangs, drunk, high, and out-of-control criminals, and screaming and vicious domestic disputes is often an ugly business. Moreover, crime rates aren’t evenly distributed demographically, so stops, arrests, and police shootings won’t be either.
Our nation has been blessed by a broad, two-decade decrease in violent crime. And while there are many reasons for that decline, aggressive policing has been a key element in the national effort to save lives. I fear that we’ve taken progress for granted and are foolishly allowing alleged individual injustices to serve as a pretext for overhauling entire systems of policing.
That’s not to say that all pre-existing police tactics are worthwhile. Some cities draft the police into imposing fines and writing tickets not as a means of legitimate law-enforcement but rather to fund bloated municipal bureaucracies. And in a big country, there will be a few corrupt departments. No branch of government should be immune from scrutiny. But there’s a difference between legitimate scrutiny and ideological arguments built on lies and half-truths.
Let the police do their job. The cost of radical “reform” is blood on the streets.