Chicago hit a grim milestone in 2021: the Cook County medical examiner’s office tallied 836 homicides, the most in 25 years. The New Year isn’t starting out better: last week, two 14-year-old boys were killed within a few hours; on the same day, a 29-year-old pregnant woman was sitting in a car when two men shot and killed her.
Such violence is not unexpected, given the dysfunctions in the city’s police force and the constraints and disincentives now facing Chicago cops. The Chicago PD is understaffed by more than 1,000 officers—and this after the mayor already eliminated more than 600 police vacancies in her efforts to balance the city budget. The department also faces a recruitment crisis: only 5,000 people applied to Chicago’s police academy last year, compared with about 30,000 in past years. The most recent academy class, which graduated a few weeks ago, added a mere 13 new officers to the force.
Officers are working 12-hour shifts, with few breaks. “People are so tired. . . . it’s total burnout . . . working murder after murder, shooting after shooting,” one sergeant told WBEZ Chicago. In December, the department canceled thousands of officers’ days off after thieves broke into and looted multiple stores in the downtown area. Violent-crime arrests were down 39 percent in 2021 compared with 2019.
The department is also laboring under a federal consent decree to reform current training, tactics, and practices, which has led to reduction in proactive policing. Further impediments on officer mobility followed the high-profile police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. Among other restrictions, the new policy implemented in May prohibits foot pursuits if there is too much distance between the officer and the suspect and if cops determine that they will not be able to control the suspect of the chase if a confrontation occurs.
Department morale remains low, as officers fear that a misstep or media misinformation could lead to drastic disciplinary action. “Many of our officers are not arresting people, are letting crimes that happen right in front of them go by because they don’t want to be misconstrued as being racist or being held liable for any kind of misconceived notions of brutality or whatever,” Raymond Lopez, alderman of Chicago’s 15th Ward, said at a recent Chicago city council meeting.
Even more concerning is the city’s inability to prevent suspects accused of murder and other violent crimes from posing an ongoing threat. On Monday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told CBS Chicago that 75 percent to 80 percent of the 2,600 defendants monitored via the home-confinement program have been charged with a violent offense, including “about 100 people on home monitoring who are charged with murder.” This system has come under increased scrutiny over the past year, as multiple people under electronic monitoring have perpetrated violent crimes. Even Chicago’s progressive mayor Lori Lightfoot has expressed outrage, asking Chief Judge Timothy Evans to ensure that suspects in the most violent crimes are not released from jail into the electronic-monitoring program while awaiting trial (he denied her request). “Do you feel safer knowing these numbers? They’re right back on the street walking big as day as if there is zero accountability. That’s what’s contributing to the level of brazenness that we’re seeing on our street,” she said last week.
But Mayor Lightfoot was singing a different tune in 2020. Caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the George Floyd protests, she called for slashing $80 million from the Chicago police budget. Now reality has arrived, and she has repeatedly asked U.S. attorney general Merrick Garland to send ATF agents to seize illegal guns. “We cannot continue to endure the level of violence that we are now experiencing,” Lightfoot said in a recent speech.
While homicides in Chicago rose only marginally in 2021, by 3.2 percent, that increase came after a 55 percent surge in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020. For all the talk of racial equity, the victims of this metastasizing violence are overwhelmingly black. Last year saw the largest recorded disparity in homicides between the disproportionately white, affluent parts of Chicago and the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic areas on the South and West Side. In the seven most crime-ridden police districts, the homicide rate was 25 times higher than the rest of the city, where murders remained at baseline levels.
The hurricane of violence ravaging black communities in Chicago ought to prompt Black Lives Matters demonstrations across the country. Last year, 84 black children were killed in Chicago alone; that’s several times the number of unarmed black Americans fatally shot by the police nationwide. Yet the media will quickly move on from stories like that of LaNiyah Murphy, the 20-year-old girl devoted to anti-violence activism who was killed last week in Chicago, or the 97 percent of last year’s homicide victims who were nonwhite. Want evidence of systemic racism? Look at the mainstream media’s disregard for the victims of violent crime and for the voices of their loved ones begging for police presence to be restored in their communities.
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