Chicago had 797 homicides last year, according to city police—the most of any city in the United States and the most in Chicago for a quarter century. That figure doesn’t include the increased number of homicides on expressways, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Illinois State Police. Including those numbers brings the count to at least 800.
Homicides are only the tip of the spear of Chicago’s crime wave. More than 4,000 people have been shot—about 70 percent more than two years ago. The city’s homicide figures would surely be much higher if not for advances in medicine that prevent more people from dying from shootings. Carjackings and robberies are on the rise as well.
The toll is greatest among minorities and residents of poor neighborhoods, but crime is seeping into affluent places as well, and the spillover endangers Chicago’s economy. Premium retailers at the city’s Magnificent Mile have attracted shoppers from across the Midwest for decades. Now, because of both Covid and crime, many of those retailers have packed up and left. Empty storefronts along the avenue signal an ominous future. Chicago relies on its high sales taxes, including a levy targeted at the downtown area, but sales taxes won’t fill the city’s coffers if there are no buyers.
Chicago’s crime explosion has many causes, of course, but an important one is dreadful political leadership. Never in its history has Chicago had such a feckless trio in charge of public safety: Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Foxx is the worst of the three. She is single-handedly creating a culture in which crime pays. James Q. Wilson’s famous Broken Windows theory argued that visible signs of disorder in a community foster a climate that encourages more serious disorder and crime. Foxx seems almost to want broken windows, instituting a policy not to seek felony charges against retail theft unless it exceeds $1,000. The result has been not just more retail theft but even worse, a culture in which young people become habituated criminals without fear of substantial consequence.
Foxx has also destroyed key relationships with the police through her reckless professional misconduct. She infamously dropped charges against Jussie Smollett for his hate-crime hoax, despite the solid case police built against him. Fortunately, a judge appointed a special prosecutor who charged and eventually convicted Smollett on five felony counts. The judge also commissioned an investigative report that concluded that Foxx had lied about talking to Smollet’s sister about the case after learning the actor was a criminal suspect, telling her at one point that “your brother should be fine as long as he stays consistent.” How can the police trust a prosecutor who gives legal advice to suspects and then lies about it?
Governor J. B. Pritzker, meantime, focuses on the political appearances of his policies rather than on their effects. According to Chicago hedge-fund titan Ken Griffin, during the George Floyd riots in the summer of 2020, Pritzker delayed sending in National Guard troops because it would “not look good to have people with assault rifles patrolling Michigan Avenue.” When Pritzker finally relented and deployed troops, he sent such a minimal force that the rioters merely decamped from the stores of high-end retailers along the Magnificent Mile to loot elsewhere. Pritzker’s weak response to the rioting thus contributed to the culture of impunity.
Pritzker supported and signed into law a bill that enacts several experiments in criminal justice likely to increase crime when they take effect next year. For instance, police will no longer be able to make arrests for many acts of criminal trespass, creating an obstacle to breaking up the gang violence plaguing Chicago. But again, Pritzker’s concern is political calculation: he wants to be seen as supporting the Left’s current version of “reform,” whatever its effects on crime.
Mayor Lightfoot is in some ways the least bad of the three, having tangled with Foxx and criticized her foolish decisions, such as her refusal to charge gang members involved in a shooting on the theory that the gunfire was “mutual combat.” Lightfoot has announced a program to fine gang members civilly and take the property with which they organize to terrorize neighborhoods. A mark of this idea’s soundness is the opposition it has received from a group of lawyers who argue that it will have disparate impact on the poor and minorities—they conveniently ignore the disparate impact of the death and destruction that gangs inflict on these same populations.
Even with these points in her favor on public safety, Lightfoot remains fixated on the idea that the best way to fight crime is to attack its root causes. To that end, she is funding “community coordination centers” as a crime-fighting strategy. If the reporting about these centers is accurate, they are likely to be next to useless. People sit around and discuss fictional scenarios leading to potential shootings—for instance, “a teenage mom who was angry that her baby’s father, just 17, wouldn’t provide for the child and instead was spending his money throwing himself a birthday party.” Chicago’s violent-crime spike isn’t caused by a rise in domestic violence, however—and it isn’t clear, anyway, how community discussions of fictional scenarios would reduce domestic violence. Such programs at best distract from what we already know about how to reduce violence: by arresting, convicting, and jailing its perpetrators, and by fostering a law-abiding culture in which police are empowered to regulate even seemingly minor infractions and quality-of-life crimes.
The only silver lining to Chicago’s terrible crime wave is that it creates realities that voters cannot ignore. Ultimately, they are the only ones who can rescue their city from violence—by electing leaders committed to confronting it.
Photos: Presley Ann/Getty Images for EMILY'S List (left), Scott Olson/Getty Images (center and right)