March Mayhem: Mayor 'Never Waste a Crisis' Oversees Chicago Free-Fall

It had been an unusually cold month of March in Chicago, but with the first 50 degree day in weeks, about 500 African American teenagers heated up Chicago’s Gold Coast on Saturday night. By the time the mayhem ended, 28 had been arrested, two women had been beaten badly on a CTA train, and dozens of others had been hit, robbed, or threatened.

Several of those arrested told police that the attacks had been planned and coordinated on social networking sites, just as in prior years when packs of teenagers assaulted, robbed, and terrified hundreds of swimmers and sunbathers at the North Avenue Beach.

While Chicago media were careful to avoid bringing up race in the attacks this weekend or in prior years when similar assaults occurred, the video that was captured at the scene told the story.

The mobs fleeing from police did not fit the profile of poorly dressed, angry, underprivileged youths.  The videos seemed to show rioters enjoying themselves, much like the supposedly angry rioters after the Rodney King verdict, who were seen laughing and smiling as they carried off their appliances from looted stores.

An argument could be made that for the vandals in the street this weekend, a character deficit trumped the more common “disadvantaged” explanations for the behavior on display.

The mayhem dealt another blow to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s drive to make Chicago a “world-class city.” He had backtracked on his new policing strategy in February after a bloody January with over 40 murder victims, ordering the police to go back to the “flood the zone” approach — first used on a large scale in New York City — which shifts resources quickly to high-crime areas. The mayor had abandoned this strategy soon after he took office — the murder count rose 20% in the year after his switch, while other large cities saw continued declines in their murder numbers.

In February, the murder count fell after the old strategy was restored, suggesting that the policing strategy the mayor abandoned might have cost lives in 2012.

The city’s status as the murder capital of America became national news in 2012  (Chicago had a murder rate four times that of New York, and more than twice that of Los Angeles for the year). The latest attacks on innocents walking the streets in the best neighborhoods of the city and on those riding the subway have further publicized Chicago’s crime problem – even internationally. Chicago is now linked with cities such as Johannesburg and Rio De Janeiro, which have grappled with extremely high murder tolls for years.

The great majority of Chicago’s murders occur in areas visitors to the city never see. Most murder victims are the same race as their murderer, and most of the murders occur in the South and West areas of the city.

Chicago’s shooting rate is even more astonishing than the number killed: in 2012, approximately one in every 1,000 Chicagoans was shot — a rate 6 times higher than New York’s rate. In other words, New York has more accurate shooters than Chicago. If Chicago’s shooters killed with the accuracy of the shooters in New York, the murder toll would have approached 800 in 2012, not just over 500. This weekend was typical — 23 Chicagoans shot, but only two (so far) dead from the shooting spree. 

The weekend chaos in the North Michigan Avenue area is likely to have a different impact on visitors to the city, and on businesses thinking of moving there or perhaps of leaving Chicago. The fear of random violence is higher in Chicago than in New York , Los Angeles, or Houston, the only other U.S. cities with over two million people.

The personal safety test may be the first test a city has to pass when people think of living there or visiting: is it safe? Last summer, a physician attending a convention in the city was brazenly attacked near his hotel on the North Side. Will that convention consider Las Vegas or Orlando next time around? Chicago has been losing convention business for decades, most of it relocating because Chicago’s union contractors have behaved as if extortion on exhibitors at McCormick Place is the way to conduct business.

Chicago only has so many police to go around — around 13,000. If the Saturday night attacks are a sign that warm spring and summer nights will bring the attackers back to north-side streets, police patrols in high-visibility areas means fewer police to patrol the highest crime areas in other parts of the city, where most of the shootings and murders occur.

Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader confirmed the manpower shortfall:

“‘The problem is there’s not enough police on the street — period,'” says one senior officer. “‘I’ve been at this job for 20 years and it’s never been this bad.'” Which another of his subjects connected to the idea of legitimacy:

“Hudson had never before seen such brazen defiance in the face of authority, but the incident was far from the first this summer in his corner of Logan Square, near Drake and Cortland. “The gangbangers will shoot off guns or keep us up late or break a window, and we’ll call the police, and they’re slow to respond,” he says. “If they’re openly defiant to police officers, how are ordinary citizens going to be safe? There’s a loss of authority here.”

By some estimates, there are twice as many police per resident in New York than Chicago. A major part of the difference is the ratio of street police to total force size in the two cities. New York is a wealthier city than Chicago, and has a city income tax, and a larger per capita tax base to support city services. New York has become one of the safest big cities in the world in terms of total crime, and America’s safest large city in terms of murder rate (e.g San Francisco’s murder rate is 60% higher than New York’s).

The perception that New York has become a safer city has led to the city’s reversing its population slide. It now has more people than it ever had. Chicago’s population has dropped by more than a fourth since its peak, and is still slipping. The stories of a soaring  murder rate coupled with assaults in the Gold Coast only reinforce the negative patterns already in play –that the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are basically broke, and that everyone is fighting to protect their turf and unwilling to make any sacrifice for the greater good (witness the recent teachers’ strike in reaction to an attempt by the mayor to lengthen the school day, which has been far shorter in Chicago than any other major city).

A few months back, there were stories about Rahm Emanuel’s political ambitions — including perhaps a White House run. Given the mayor’s troubles and the city’s troubles the last year and a half, Rahm may want simply to run from Chicago.

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