Policing Still Won't Save Chicago

The promise to add more police is a clarion call for the total occupation of poor neighborhoods.

Anthony Ehlers

Chicago police officers in 2020. Max Bender/Unsplash

Listening to one of the candidates for mayor in Chicago’s upcoming runoff, you’d think that more police is the answer to everything that ails the city. 

But how we police Chicago is more important than how many police Chicago has. 

Paul Vallas wants to make a dramatic increase in the number of cops employed by the Chicago Police Department. This is clearly not the solution to the city’s problems. Vallas is a longtime politician and talks frequently about his experience in government. He does indeed have experience, but it’s of the wrong kind. It is in failed plans and outdated policies — approaches that abandon and ignore communities of color. These are policies that want the easy way out by simply throwing more police at problems.

We need to decide as a society how we’re going to view crime. Our policies are a reflection of our larger social and political values, and they need to change. Failed policies see crime primarily as a problem to be deterred through fear and punishment. We need to realize that crime is a socioeconomic problem that needs to be managed. There is empirical evidence that this approach is more effective at keeping crime rates low and reducing recidivism.

Police brutality and corruption costs Chicago taxpayers millions of dollars. By 2017, Chicago issued more than $700 million in police brutality bonds—debt taken on to cover the cost of police-brutality payouts. On top of that are the tens of millions more in legal fees from brutality cases. Joshua Tepfer, a partner at Loevy and Loevy who won exonerations for defendants whose convictions stemmed from arrests by corrupt CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts, told Rolling Stone in 2020, By the time the city’s done paying out Watts’ victims, the amount could be astronomical.” 

The call to add more police to communities of color is a clarion call for the total occupation of poor neighborhoods. What some politicians and others don’t seem to understand is that many Chicagoans, especially in Black and Brown communities, do not trust the police enough to call them.

Politicians are lying when they say that the police prevent crime. They do not. Police are a response to crime. They maintain a crime scene and pick up evidence. They are not a preventative measure.

Chicago police also rarely solve the crimes they are called to. Per 2019 report, the solve rate for white victims of homicide in Chicago is 47%. For Black victims, it’s just 22%. That’s unacceptable. 

In 2021 law review, University of Pennsylvania researchers William Laufer and Robert Hughes found that nationwide, less than half of violent crimes and less than a quarter of property crimes had been solved in the previous decade. Police have never successfully solved crimes with any regularity,” they wrote, as arrest and clearance rates are consistently low throughout history.”

The Sun-Times quoted Vallas as saying he would hire 700 more police officers with the $100 million that Mayor Lightfoot is spending on private security. That money should be spent on violence prevention programs and community investment. Communities like Englewood and Auburn Gresham should not have to fight to keep a grocery store. These areas need investment. Instead, city policy seems to be one of neglect and abandonment.

Solving the socioeconomic problem of crime is difficult. But politicians need more creative, sustainable approaches. We have seen decades of this tough-on-crime” policy, and it’s usually aimed at poor Black and Brown communities, whose residents are disproportionately stopped and harassed by Chicago police. A report issued by interim Inspector General William Marbeck in 2022 concluded that Chicago policing shows that when a police stop results in an officer using force against a Chicagoan, 83.4% of these incidents involve a Black person.

Black Chicagoans are 1.5 times more likely to be searched or patted down than people of another race. Cars belonging to Black people are 3.3 times more likely to be searched than cars belonging to white people. Officers are more likely to use force against Black people. Officers used lethal force in 60 incidents analyzed by the Inspector General’s audit, and none of those incidents target white people.

In 2022 law enforcement killed 1,176 people. It was the deadliest year on record for police violence, according to Mapping Police Violence. Of those, 132 people killed were cases in which no offenses were alleged. Of those cases, 104 were mental health or welfare checks, 98 cases involved traffic violations, and 207 involved allegations of nonviolent offenses. That means that 46% of the cases in which police killed people were originally nonviolent incidents.

How is it that routine police encounters escalate to killings? Police killings are not only continuing, they are getting worse. In 32% of the cases in 2021, the person was fleeing when they were killed. This should not be happening. 

What we see in the report from Mapping Police Violence is that the racial disparities are systemic. Black people were 24% of those killed last year, while making up only 13% of the population. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by U.S. police than white people — and in Illinois, the ratio is higher.

In 2017, the Department of Justice concluded a yearlong investigation into civil rights violations by the CPD that resulted in a federal consent decree. Since then, the CPD has consistently lagged in its compliance with the decree. A 2020 report found the department missed 70% of the deadlines for reforms. It seems they aren’t even trying to change, and accountability is next to nonexistent. 

If we want less crime, better policing and better relationships between communities and officers, then we need to understand that you cannot deter crime through fear and punishment. It does not work. We can clearly see that this policy has failed. We have to do the hard work of addressing the social and economic problems that are at the root of crime and unrest: things like inequality, exclusion, abandonment, racism and a lack of political voice.

These reforms need to be aggressive, far-reaching and systemic. Justice is more than the absence of oppression. Many of the problems we see in poor communities are by design, so it’s by design that we must fix these problems. How we police is more important than how many police we have.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Reader.

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Anthony Ehlers is a writer incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center.

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