Chicago: Where Criminals No Longer Fear the Police

It’s a shame that the public has to be reminded of this from time to time, but any cop can testify to this inescapable fact of police work: Where there is no punishment for criminal behavior, crime will flourish.

Nowhere has this been demonstrated with greater clarity lately than in Chicago, where the Sun-Times has taken notice and sounded the alarm. In a three-part series that concluded Tuesday, reporters Mark Konkol and Frank Main examined the violent incidents that occurred over a single weekend in Chicago two years ago. During that 59-hour period, from April 18 -20, 2008, forty people were shot in the city, seven of them fatally. Stop and consider that for a moment: one city, one weekend, seven people murdered, and 33 others shot but still alive.

As horrifying as those numbers are, they are far from the most disturbing revelation in the Sun-Times series. You might assume that such an extraordinary outbreak of carnage would have aroused the citizenry in Chicago to demand swift action from their police, prosecutors, and elected officials to see to it that those responsible for the violence were brought to justice. You might assume so, that is, if you don’t live in Chicago.

As it happens, not a single suspect in any of those shootings has been convicted of a crime. One accused shooter, says the Sun-Times, awaits trial for killing his boss. The other six murders remain unsolved, as do nearly all of the non-fatal shootings that occurred that weekend. In 2009, Chicago detectives “cleared” 30 percent of the murders and 18 percent of the non-fatal shootings they investigated. But, as in any city,  a “clearance” in Chicago does not necessarily mean a suspect was arrested, charged, and convicted, but merely that one was identified to the satisfaction of investigators. In some cases detectives are reminded of one axiom of big-city police work: today’s suspect is tomorrow’s victim. Police sometimes come across evidence identifying someone as a murder suspect only to discover he himself has been gunned down, either in retaliation for the earlier murder or merely as a consequence of his engaging in a high-risk lifestyle.

In other instances, police identify a suspect but are frustrated when prosecutors decline to file charges for lack of cooperating witnesses or other perceived weaknesses in the case. You’ll find it strange, but some shooting victims themselves refuse to cooperate with police and prosecutors, even when they know and can identify the person who shot them.

And so it should surprise no one that in a city where there is little risk of consequences for shooting and even killing someone, people tend to be shot and killed with greater frequency than elsewhere. Chicago’s murder rate, i.e., the number of murders per 100,000 residents, is twice that of Los Angeles and almost three times that of New York. Comparisons among the three cities’ statistics for robberies and aggravated assaults are similarly lopsided. (Chicagoans might find some comfort in the knowledge that the murder rate in Detroit is almost twice as high as theirs, and New Orleans’s is more than three times as high.)