Why Chicago Can’t Get a Grip on Its Murder Crisis

Police tape at a crime scene in Chicago, Ill., in 2017. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)
Politics trumps professionalism when it comes to public safety in the Windy City — with deadly results.

Chicago is grieving.

The city saw 105 murders in July and has 445 this year, more than any other major city in the country. One 29-year-old police officer is dead after she was shot while conducting a traffic stop on Saturday. Chicago hasn’t experienced anything like the murder surge of the last year and a half since the 1990s, when the demolition of major public-housing projects precipitated turf wars among displaced gang members.

So what is happening here?

Some reasons for the spike will be familiar to residents of other big cities that have recently experienced a violent-crime surge. These include the isolation and economic carnage of the COVID-19 pandemic, alienated young people, and demoralized police. Some point to root causes such as generational poverty and discrimination against communities of color. These, too, are not unique to Chicago.

But Chicago stands out in one way: Put simply, politics trumps professionalism when it comes to public safety in the Windy City. And as a result, two keys to effective crime-fighting — constitutional policing and community policing — are absent here.

Constitutional policing includes respecting each individual, only pursuing wrong-doing based on probable cause, being careful with the use of lethal force, wearing operational body cameras, telling the truth, and much more. Community policing is a force-wide effort to become familiar with prominent, respected residents of the neighborhoods that officers serve, and to prove to those neighborhoods that police will bring violent criminals to justice while protecting the innocent from retaliation.

Sadly, the city’s political leadership has taken its eye off both goals.

Broken Trust

In the aftermath of the 2014 police murder of Laquan McDonald, a task force headed by then–Chicago Police Board president and now-mayor Lori Lightfoot concluded that the trust between the police and the communities they serve had been broken.

Those living in neighborhoods with the highest rates of violent crime had stopped counting on police to protect them and instead were convinced that police would, more often than not, abuse them. Law-abiding residents avoided contact with the police out of fear that they might get roughed up or unfairly arrested. Relatives and friends of murdered Chicagoans would not help officers’ investigations, fearing the police would not protect them from retribution.

After the McDonald murder and a subsequent investigation by the Department of Justice, the Chicago Police Department entered into a consent decree with the state of Illinois overseen by a federal court. The decree called for a laundry list of changes that would make it possible for the department to live within constitutional boundaries. Some of the changes are shockingly basic — reforms such as maintaining records of officer-performance reviews and creating a process to evaluate whether officer training is effective. But the department has continuously failed to meet even the simplest of its obligations under the consent decree. In March, an independent watchdog report revealed that the city had missed 40 percent of the consent decree’s deadlines for implementing reforms last year.

Political Theater

Central to this ongoing mess are various efforts by activist groups and community members to assert civilian oversight.

In 1960, Mayor Richard J. Daley created the Chicago Police Board to oversee discipline and the hiring of the police chief. After the McDonald tragedy, the city transformed another existing oversight body into the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, which now has 150 employees and a $13 million budget.

This summer, Lightfoot and the city council created a new police-commission system that could charitably be described as convoluted and will operate alongside the CPB and COPA rather than supplanting them. Chicagoans will now elect three commissioners in each of the city’s 22 police districts. Of these 66 elected officials, one per district will nominate candidates to a sitting, seven-member commission with little power beyond the ability to call hearings and request documents. The mayor will retain final say over the commissioners’ nominations.

It should tell you something that Chicago’s murder problem has persisted despite the existence of two, and now three, police-oversight bodies: The problem is not a lack of civilian oversight. For that matter, it’s not a lack of resources, either: Chicago spends roughly the same amount of money on policing as Los Angeles does, but the latter’s homicide rate is a fraction of the former’s.

No, the problem is profound misgovernance — a system that incentivizes the politicization of policing, rather than professional management.

The previous mayor fired one police chief to deflect political pressure from his office in the wake of the McDonald scandal. He and the city council at the time suspended rules governing the chief’s replacement in order to hire someone who didn’t even apply for the job. Then, the chosen successor was fired after officers found him sleeping behind his steering wheel at a stop sign near his home.

This year, the city council spent the Friday before the deadly July 4 weekend grilling the police chief and Lightfoot on how they will reduce homicides. The mayor and council joined together to criticize COPA for delaying an investigation into a no-knock raid on the wrong household where the occupant was held naked for more than 30 minutes before the police realized their mistake.

Criticizing, fault-finding, grandstanding, and dispersing civilian responsibility for the problem to yet another oversight body — this is politics rather than governance, and it won’t get the city any closer to meeting its obligations under the consent decree.

The Road Not Taken

In researching our book on Chicago government, we were impressed by the professional manner in which the Los Angeles Police Commission (LAPC) took the LAPD from among the worst departments in the country to among the best — satisfying the department’s own federal consent decree and reducing the city’s homicide rate dramatically — in a span of 20 years.

How did the LAPC do this? Most importantly, its governance structure set it up for success.

Los Angeles has a five-member, unpaid police commission that oversees a paid executive director. Reporting to this commission is the police chief, the executive director, and the police inspector general. This staff not only listens to the community, but then works quietly and constructively with the department to make sure it is well-managed. Training for officers is up to date and is taken seriously. There are enough well-trained supervisors. Every incident of the use of lethal force, whether someone is killed or not, is investigated on the spot by members of the district attorney’s office and the inspector general’s office. The mayor and city council look in periodically, especially around the time each year when the city’s budget is being negotiated, but otherwise they leave the staff to focus on continual improvement.

Chicago could have adopted a similar system, embracing the quiet professionalism that has taken Los Angeles so far in such a relatively short period of time. Instead, Lightfoot got behind an untested, unwieldy new political structure. There’s no better illustration of the root of the city’s murder crisis than that. And until the city’s mayor, council, and reform advocates abandon their commitment to political policing and start providing the leadership their constituents have a right to expect, the crisis will continue.

Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg are the co-authors of The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities. You can listen to their podcast about the book’s findings on Spotify.


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