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.)

As horrific as that one weekend in 2008 was in Chicago, whatever dubious records it might have set were eclipsed this year on the weekend of June 18-20, when 54 people were shot in the city, ten of them fatally, surely a mark that would rival that of any three-day period in Detroit, New Orleans, or for that matter, Baghdad or Kabul. In a sad but all too typical coda to a story that ran on on June 21, it was reported that no one had been arrested for any of the shootings.


And it gets worse. Three Chicago police officers have been murdered in the last two months, the most recent of whom was Michael Bailey, who at age 62 was only weeks away from retirement. On the morning of July 18, Bailey had finished an overnight shift guarding the home of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and was in front of his own home cleaning his new car, which he had bought as an early retirement gift to himself. He was still dressed in his police uniform when someone tried to rob him. Police officers everywhere accept the risks to life and limb attendant to the job, but it’s generally taken for granted among cops that the uniform will serve as a deterrent against being robbed on the street. What level of depravity has a city reached when a uniformed police officer is no safer from a street robbery than anyone else? More important, what is to be done about it?

These are questions some are asking within the Chicago Police Department, where morale among the rank and file is low and falling still. An unsigned essay, purportedly written by a Chicago police officer, has been making its way via e-mail around the department, and it found its way into the Dunphy in-box.  Titled “A City At War With Itself — Chicago — a Fast Track to Anarchy,” the essay chronicles the many ways the city’s police department and municipal government have failed to address the rising level of violence. (The essay has been posted on various blogs, one of which is here.)


The author laments the recent history of the Chicago Police Department, which, in his opinion, has descended into chaos and ineffectualness. “In a few short years,” he writes, “[the police department] has deteriorated into a totally demoralized, understaffed police department that criminals no longer fear.”

Here in Los Angeles, we have seen with stunning clarity what happens when criminals no longer fear the police. In 1998, then-LAPD Chief Bernard Parks disbanded the city’s anti-gang units in a misguided and ill-fated response to a scandal involving one such unit at one of the city’s 18 police stations. The results were as tragic as they were predictable: murders in the city, which had been on the decline from their all-time high of 1992, began to climb, increasing from 419 in 1998 to 647 in 2002. Only when Parks was finally shown the exit and the LAPD’s anti-gang efforts were resumed did that trend reverse itself. (There were 308 murders in L.A. in 2009, the lowest total since 1967.)

During that five-year period, Los Angeles passed a tipping point beyond which the LAPD lost — perhaps surrendered — control of the streets. As the number of murders went up, the clearance rate went down, further emboldening those for whom the law held little impediment against their predations on the community. Similar processes are underway in Chicago right now. The police department, underfunded and undermanned, is headed by Superintendent Jody Weis, who was appointed by Mayor Daley in 2008 after a 22-year career with the FBI. Weis, who never served as a police officer, and who since his arrival has made some unpopular decisions, has thus far failed to gain the respect of the rank and file, without which there is little hope of improvement in the department and the city.


And to further illustrate the paralysis that has marked the response to Chicago’s troubles, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has announced the formation of a new Anti-Violence Commission, the very thought of which will surely cause even the most debased Chicago hoodlum to change his ways and start attending novenas down at Holy Name Cathedral.

Pity the good people of Chicago. The thugs give them dead bodies, the governor gives them commissions.


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