Earlier this week, outgoing Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, took to the New York Times to tout the Windy City’s approach to police reform and crime reduction. The timing and tone of the mayor’s article are odd, to say the least. Emanuel seems to be trying to reposition himself as a thought-leader among mayors when it comes to crimefighting, but even a cursory look at the numbers indicate that his city is no model.
To hear Emanuel tell it, Chicago is leading the way on both police reform and crime reduction. But his picture of success uses two questionable benchmarks. He concedes that “Chicago is still a long way from the level of public safety we want for every neighborhood,” but claims that, since 2016, “homicides are down 27 percent and shootings are down 32 percent.” These numbers mean less than he suggests. Emanuel forgot to add that 2016 was the year that shootings in Chicago skyrocketed, and the city racked up a staggering 765 homicides—a more than 50 percent increase from the 478 killed in 2015, which itself represented a 16 percent increase from the 411 killed in 2014. Shootings and homicides may be down over the last few years, but they’re down from a huge spike, and they’re still elevated compared with the pre-spike numbers. The city saw more than 530 homicides in 2018—hardly cause for celebration.
The mayor also makes his case by comparing Chicago’s crime numbers over the last two years with those of . . . Baltimore. Not New York. Not Los Angeles. But Baltimore—one of America’s most dangerous, crime-ridden cities. It’s no accident that Emanuel chose this comparison, instead of putting Chicago up against New York and Los Angeles—the Windy City had more murders than New York and L.A. combined last year, though it is the smallest of the three cities.
Beating out Baltimore in crime reduction is not exactly a coup. And make no mistake: while Chicago benefits from a densely populated North Side with low crime numbers, areas on the city’s South and West Sides don’t look so different from Baltimore when it comes to aggregate population and crime numbers. The neighborhoods in which Chicago’s serious violent crime is concentrated are among the worst in the nation.
Emanuel seems to be arguing that Baltimore is what Chicago would be, but for his leadership. Media outlets including the New York Times have covered the relationship between Baltimore’s out-of-control violence and its demoralized police force. In response to a rise in anti-police sentiment following controversial police-involved deaths, police have become less aggressive in a number of cities. In Baltimore’s case, cops became less proactive after public outcry over the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray; and crime has gone up significantly as a result. My Manhattan Institute colleague, Heather Mac Donald, calls this phenomenon the “Ferguson Effect.”
Emanuel suggests that Chicago narrowly avoided the same fate, thanks to his management of the city’s police-reform efforts after the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murder. In his Times op-ed, the former mayor claims that, in 2015, he warned “that police officers would ‘go fetal’ if they weren’t included” in the subsequent reform effort. That’s not exactly right. When Emanuel spoke of Chicago cops going “fetal,” he wasn’t warning of what might happen if certain steps weren’t taken; rather, it was his own assessment of what had already happened. This was how the Chicago Tribune—which calls Emanuel’s new op-ed “revisionist history”—reported the mayor’s 2015 remarks in a headline that read: “emanuel blames chicago crime uptick on officers second-guessing themselves.” The paper quotes Emanuel unambiguously as arguing that Chicago crime was trending upward because police had backed off. Why? Because, Emanuel said at the time, police “don't want to be a news story themselves, they don't want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.” In the year that followed, things got much worse; and in the years since, they’ve gotten only slightly better.
Chicago has averaged 535 homicides per year between 2012 (Emanuel’s first full year in office) and 2018. Between 2005 and 2011, the average was just 455. Emanuel has a hard sell to convince people that, on crime, things are better in Chicago for his being mayor, so he seems to be trying a different angle: things could be even worse—just look at Baltimore. Someone should have told the former mayor that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
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