Can we blame spike in murders on overcautious policing?

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Last October, before most Chicagoans had ever heard of Laquan McDonald or Jason VanDyke, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was among the mayors and police chiefs warning that police officers were not aggressively combating potential crime for fear that an incident captured on video might end their careers.

As the number of Chicago homicides appears spiraling out of control, new concerns are being raised about whether the police, in the wake of months of public complaints of abuse, are being too restrained. Those questions, in fact, are part of a broader discussion about whether proactive policing is effective in halting murder and other serious crimes.

The issue has erupted as Chicago recorded 95 homicides in the first two months of 2016 — the highest number since 1999.  At the same time, The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week, the department recorded 14,648 police stops in the first two months of 2016 — an 87 percent drop from 111,831 during the same period.

CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi called the current homicide count “unacceptable” and told the newspaper that police stops lead to police arresting “more people with guns and in turn, you will get more armed bad guys off the street.” The department failed to respond to requests for further comment from Injustice Watch.

Police union officials contend the public is endangered if police are discouraged from active policing.  “The more you minimize officers’ ability to be proactive, the less likely you can keep a cap on violence,” Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, told Injustice Watch.

That message was echoed on Wednesday, after Chicago police officer Aldo Brown was sentenced to two years in federal prison for using excessive force on a man in a convenience store. Brown’s attorney warned: “The message that we have now sent out is that there is no reason, there is no incentive for a police officer ever to do proactive work again going forward.”

But outside experts say that the connection between proactive policing and a decrease in crime is more complex. “There’s a natural tendency to say the reason crime went up is because cops were not being proactive, but there is not scientific proof that there’s a correlation between the two,” said Jim Bueermann, a former police officer and current president of the Police Foundation. “[Solving] the gun violence problem in Chicago is far more complicated than making more pedestrian and traffic stops.”

John Jay College of Criminal Justice associate professor Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer himself, said there is “definitely a cause and effect” between proactive policing and reducing violent crime, but added: “The problem is it’s not linear and it’s not just in the numbers, and that’s where it gets messy.”

Moskos notes that police stops tend to focus on neighborhoods where violence is highest — heightening community mistrust among many members of minority neighborhoods where police-community relations are strained.

The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-IL)  reported last year that 72 percent of stops by Chicago police were of black people, who make up 32 percent of the city’s population. Further, the report noted, more than 250,000 stops made during the summer of 2014 ended without anyone arrested.

Edwin Yohnka of ACLU-IL told Injustice Watch, “What really happens [with stops] is the trust breaks down between the community and police. It makes policing harder; it makes resolving crime investigations harder.”

City officials are working to not only restore that trust, but also to rebuild morale in a department that has been shattered in recent months, as police practices come under heightened scrutiny and the Justice Department continues its probe into police practices. “Everything we do is perceived as rogue right now,” a gang officer complained to The Tribune.

But Bueermann, among other experts, warns that police may discover that the spike in violence is not directly connected to the police reticence to be proactive.  “There’s a distinct possibility that crime is going to go up regardless,” he said.

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