Vallas: A real strategy for containing out-of-control violence in Chicago

Vallas: A real strategy for containing out-of-control violence in Chicago

Chicago can’t afford to wait on immediate crime reduction efforts – the city needs a plan. Unfortunately, no concrete details have emerged on how the new administration plans to address public safety, the No. 1 issue on Chicagoans’ minds. Here are nine steps Chicago officials could take to begin curbing crime today.

Nearly 60 recorded shootings during the Independence Day holiday, multiple robberies in rapid succession in Lincoln Park – violence and crime continue to surge in Chicago, and city leaders have put forth no tangible solutions to curb the problem in the immediate future.

The men and women tasked with responding to crimes – the Chicago Police Department – are burning out.

Promoting 200 detectives and canceling days off while having police work exhausting extended shifts is no substitute for providing the resources and support police need and adopting a policing strategy that uses those resources most effectively. “We’re really working our officers to a nub,” Interim Superintendent Fred Waller said. “We’re canceling days off all the time.” That’s not a public safety strategy. It is an abusive work environment, given the nature and demands of the job. It is dangerous to all concerned, which is well documented in the literature and was repeatedly noted by the city’s previous inspector general. 

While the number of murders and shootings dropped slightly in 2022, that positive comes with three very sobering caveats. First, it is in line with a national trend and decidedly not a reflection of anything Chicago is doing. Second, it has settled at a much higher plateau than where we started. Finally, it is a statistical dodge of the fact overall crime is up 39% this year.

What is frightening is even these crime levels may be significantly underreported. There is a shortage of police officers and an absence of a public safety strategy that prioritizes beat integrity and proactive policing.

During the implementation of bail reform in Cook County in September 2017 until the end of 2018, over 46% of those who committed violent offenses were released to walk the street. CWB’s analysis of crime data shows a 33% arrest rate for murders in the past five years with over half of those cases not resulting in prosecution. According to CWB, less than 5% of non-fatal shootings during this period have resulted in arrests. CWB tracking of those accused of murder or attempted murder in 2021-22 suggests more than 80 were already out on felony bail when they aimed to kill. This suggests when violent offenders are not held accountable, they will continue to offend.

Crime rates are directly affected by expectations. If people know there are consequences for committing crimes, they tend to commit fewer crimes. The opposite is also true, with a lack of consequences resulting in more criminal actions. The swift reduction in crime rates after decades of high crime in the 1970’s into the 1990’s happened because our leaders understood that. When police are not provided the resources and support to make arrests, when they are being prevented from being proactive in going after lesser quality-of-life crimes, when prosecutors fail to take action to hold those perpetrators responsible, it undermines the rule of law and fosters a brazen culture of impunity among hardened criminals. Repeat offenders who are not arrested or are continually returned to the street with the knowledge they will not be prosecuted for years, if ever, will just commit more crimes and many will commit more serious crimes.

Real, actionable solutions to improve Chicago’s crime problem

Few disagree with the need to restore mental health, drug addiction and other community-based violence intervention services as part of a long-term effort to address the root causes of crime in Chicago. All agree on the need to make sustained, long-term investments in long underserved communities for real economic development that create local ownership and wealth accumulation which is generationally transferable.

However, focusing on root causes of crime without a strategy for containing today’s out-of-control violence is a prescription for failure.

Immediate steps to help curb out-of-control crime in Chicago include:

  1. Fully staffing the Chicago Police Department by creating humane working conditions that will slow the exodus of the most seasoned and accomplished officers, encourage officers to un-retire and make it attractive once again to become a CPD officer. That will be further amplified by ending the friends-and-family merit promotion system and reassuring officers that proactive, constitutionally responsive policing is going to be encouraged and publicly supported.
  2. Responsibly growing CPD ranks.
    1. Inviting officers who have left for other police departments to return to CPD with no loss of seniority from the time of departure while removing barriers preventing qualified and experienced officers from transferring from other police departments. Returning officers can be carefully screened.
    2. Recruiting retired police officers and streamlining the process of recruiting qualified military veterans directly off military bases. Priority can be given to recruiting retired officers with investigatory experience to help CPD detectives close cases and to provide needed protection for witnesses and victims.
    3. Creating a CPD “police reserve corps” consisting of retired officers as well as former CPD police officers who are now firefighters or hold other city jobs or have moved on to other professions. Such reserve officers can be used to cover sudden shortages and for special events and special projects.
  3. Improving 911 response times by putting more officers on local beats. Embracing a real policing strategy that prioritizes local police district beat integrity and allocating officers accordingly so 911 priority calls get a response in minutes rather than hours. The Chicago Inspector General’s public safety data shows only 54% of Chicago’s “sworn” officers are assigned to districts. Yet experts recommend at least 60% of sworn police officers be deployed to patrol work.
  4. Invest in detectives, witness protection. Rebuilding the detectives bureau and establishing a real witness and victims protection program will improve the city’s ability to solve crimes and protect witnesses. The lack of detectives and resources to protect witnesses and victims contributes to abysmal arrest rates. Increasing the percentage of officers assigned as detectives and supplementing them with retired officers with investigatory experience to work as analysts and to staff and support a real witness and victims protection program would go a long way toward improving clearance, charging and conviction rates.
  5. Improve safety on public transit. Making public transportation part of the community policing strategy by creating a “transit safety bureau” with officers to cover every CTA station, every platform and to ride trains both in uniform and undercover to restore confidence and ridership to this critical artery of a healthy economy and community. A major step to accomplish this would be to end private security contracts. The money currently spent on such contracts can finance an additional 300 CPD transit officers.
  6. Increase consequences for people who commit crimes. The city should enact an ordinance empowering police to make arrests, impound vehicles and impose heavy fines on individuals and organizations found guilty of violating the public way, damaging property, and harassing and threatening city residents. Ward 41 Ald. Anthony Napolitano introduced a similar ordinance, but it was never released by the City Council Rules Committee for consideration. It sits in committee, awaiting a public debate.
  7. Create a public safety ordinance. The city’s own “home rule” powers mean state law and the state’s attorney are not the only source of authority for protecting public safety. Such an ordinance can provide for as long as 364 days of jail time and include fines and terms of probation for individuals who threaten police, intimidate witnesses, engage in hate crimes, commit weapons violations, are in possession of a stolen vehicle, etc. Violations can be prosecuted by the city’s law department if the mayor and corporation counsel make it a priority.
  8. Create a case review unit to review prosecutors’ and judges’ controversial decisions on charging, pre-trial release and sentencing in violent crimes, weapons and conspiracy cases. It will highlight cases in which criminals with serious past offenses were released on bail and put on home monitors. Full transparency into the release of serious offenders has always been lacking. With pre-trial releases flooding communities with many dangerous repeat offenders, real transparency is needed more than ever. The justice system must be accountable for its failure to help keep us safe.
  9. Public schools must become as much a part of the solution as they are of the problem. No single act has been more responsible for the crime surge than COVID-19 closings of school campuses for over 70 weeks in clear defiance of the science. Since 2019, CPS enrollment has dropped 37,000. The University of Illinois-Chicago Great Cities Institute reports in 2021 there were 92,511 16- to 19-year-olds who were jobless, and 66,866 20- to 24-year-olds who were both out of school and jobless. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab recently reported a 50% increase in murders of school-age youth 17 years and younger since 2019. Over 90% were not enrolled in school. Earlier analysis documented youth 17 years and younger were 8% of those arrested for homicide, 9% of shootings, 32% of robbery and 49% of carjacking.

Conclusion: We’ve been here before, and we know what works

The dramatic decline in crime from the 1990’s that saw the homicide rate fall by nearly half was a period in which police vacancies were filled, local police beat integrity was prioritized, detective ranks were expanded and state’s attorneys made removing dangerous criminals the priority. It was also a time when schools made student safety a priority by opening school campuses beyond normal school hours, giving high school students paid work-study opportunities, expanding school choices for all families and alternative schools opened for students expelled or who dropped out.

It’s important to note rebuilding police strength is less about providing more funding and more about allowing CPD to fill its vacancies and deploy officers more effectively. The city has historically failed to fill police vacancies, often as a way to help balance its budget. For those who think not filling vacancies will free up monies for other city services, think again. While carrying 1,000 police vacancies, $210 million was spent on police overtime as escalating crime and police shortages forced the city to resort to that expensive stopgap.

Those calling for defunding the police by not filling police vacancies and by cutting the police budget by 9% are deliberately misleading the public when they claim 31% of the budget is for police. They are only looking at the corporate fund, which is the city’s operating fund. The fact is spending on CPD is less than 12% of the city budget. The fact is almost five times as much money is spent on the Chicago Public Schools than on the Chicago Police.

With a “perfect storm” of an under-resourced CPD, penalizing proactive policing, and a permissive state’s attorney and courts, violence and disorder are reaching epic proportions. While there is a need to address the underlying causes of violence and provide the community the social service and violence intervention resources needed so the police are not the only responders and not always the first responders, there is no substitute for providing the CPD with the resources and support they need to restore proactive policing and the city to use its own home rule authority to take the necessary steps to hold criminals accountable.

Only then, will we be able to contain the out-of-control violence that Chicagoans continue to experience on a daily basis. 

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