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More Cops Will Worsen, Not Help, Chicago’s Violence Problem

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So the Chicago is going to hire yet more cops. Five hundred more. Yet more, you say? Yes – the city already almost leads the nation in its level of sworn officers, and has got precious little to show for it.

When politicians say we need more police, from Bill Clinton’s 1990s call for 100,000 more cops, to the 2012 Chicago mayoral election, a certain amount of fact-free electioneering is expected.

But when Crain’s Chicago Business’s Greg Hinz is joined by his editorial board in this fact-free nonsense, we’ve reached a new low in the civic discussion about how to save more lives in our city. Like the mass incarceration boom of the 1990s, the City is escalating a disastrous trend which our communities (and wallets) will spend many years trying to extricate ourselves from.

Before making their hire-more-cops pronouncements, did either Hinz or Crain’s editorial board bother looking up the numbers and crunching them to see where Chicago ranks on sworn officers per capita?

According to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2014 (the latest year available), the number of sworn cops per capita in Chicago is already almost the highest in the nation — #3 out of the 669 U.S. cities with 50,000 or more people. Since the UCR doesn’t crunch the numbers on a per capita basis, I’ve done so here.

As Crain’s correctly points out, while the absolute number of homicides in Chicago is shocking – more than LA & New York combined (with a quarter their combined population) – the city’s per capita homicide rate is still outpaced by cities such as Baltimore. But that presents another fact-based problem for Crain’s hire-more-cops prescription – Baltimore ranking #2 in the nation for cops per capita, also has the second highest murder rate in the U.S.

So arguably, to the extent that there is any correlation between the number of cops and the amount of violence, it’s that having lots of cops equals having more homicides. The reason is quite simple: the more you spend on cops, the less you have to spend on things that actually reduce social tensions and violence.

As Black Lives Matters activists have pointed out, spending on the city’s police already consumes 38-40% of our city’s operational budget – $4 million per day. That’s a lot of money that could be spent on real measures to prevent violence. And the American Friends Service Committee notes,

One day spent on policing in Chicago is the equivalent of what the city spends on:

* 5 months of Mental Health Services ($9.4 million per year)

* 18 months of Substance Abuse Treatment ($2.6 million per year)

* 32 months of Violence Prevention programs ($1.5 million per year)

In many respects Chicago’s violence problem is not all that different in scope from that of other U.S. cities. But when compared to the rest of the industrialized world, the U.S. violence rate is off the charts. As I have argued elsewhere, the #1 factor in promoting violence – far more than the presence or absence of guns and other factors – is inequality. The internationally-recognized best measure of inequality, the so-called Gini Index, shows over and over again that nations with high inequality rates have high violence rates. As with the world, so with our city.

Against this poor national baseline, Mayor Emanuel and Richard M. Daley have engaged in a series of disastrous policies that have exacerbated the growing inequality that Chicago shares with other U.S. cities:

* Destroying thousands of units of CHA and SRO housing has put upwards pressure on the rents for all working class people. It’s simple market economics – as units of affordable housing are destroyed, there are more people chasing fewer units of affordable housing, driving rents up. Rent subsidies fail to address the root of the problem because they don’t lead to construction of additional affordable housing units. They simply enrich landlords owning units that might not otherwise rent.

* Showering millions on gee whiz projects like Millennium Park, the lakefront bike bridge by Lake Point Towers, the Chicago river walk, the DePaul basketball arena, and several TIF-subsidized luxury high-rises. Meanwhile, many of the institutional anchors of working class neighborhoods, especially predominately black and brown ones, are wiped out or greatly diminished. Library hours are cut back, mental health clinics are closed, schools are closed, and their extracurricular programs, arts and athletic program are cutback or destroyed.

* While housing markets in black neighborhoods were hit hardest by predatory home loans, and the Great Recession wiped out the first decent home equity ever seen by most black Americans, Daley and Emanuel have piled on with a series of regressive taxes on water, garbage removal, parking, and a host of others, while scrupulously avoided taxes that primarily hit the rich, such as a financial transactions tax.

* The cutbacks in neighborhood institutions and programs have been laser-focused on our at-risk youth, particular in predominately poor black and brown neighborhoods, leaving them with historically low employment levels as they age into what should be the start of their prime years in the workforce. The result is youth without training or entry level jobs, and the underground economy as one of their few options for income.

Ironically, past police “successes” in combatting crime have also exacerbated our violence problem. “Tough on crime” measures gave police and prosecutors license to embark on a mass incarceration boom, disproportionately targeting black and brown youth for petty drug crimes (while white youth largely went free). With prisons bursting at the seams and long sentences expiring, people with “bad paper” exited Illinois’s prisons skill-less and in a virtually unemployable state even if they had skills. Their choices for survival were largely limited to the underground economy and recidivism.

Our city used to have two large, admittedly violent gang federations. But just as the break-up of the mob by the feds did a few decades ago, the CPD’s success in putting big gang leaders behind bars has simply spawned a swarm of much smaller gangs each fighting over tiny patches of territory a few blocks square, with much more violence as a result. Much smaller territories mean that public housing shutdowns and school closures are much likely to force youth across gang boundaries than in the days of the big gang federations, again with more violence as a result.

Flooding “hot spots” with cops or CAPS’ “positive loitering” simply moves the problem elsewhere or temporarily suppresses it, because the root of the violence problem – increasing inequality – remains unaddressed.

Publications like Crain’s, the Wall Street Journal, and the Tribune frequently publish articles decrying growing inequality in this country. But they’re nearly always found wanting when it comes to supporting specific measures to redress this imbalance by funding the rebuilding of our poorest neighborhoods, supporting a financial transactions tax, or opposing sweetheart TIF deals that shovel funds away from those who need it most.

Instead, they’ve the ignored facts and stupidly aped politicians’ demagogic appeals for more cops – something that won’t save our youth, and will instead drain funds from programs that help them and the rest of us.

As recent events in Milwaukee and Charlotte show, people’s patience with the non-solutions from our so-called civic leaders is at an end.

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Andy Thayer has written previously about the then-impending Supreme Court decisions here and here. He is a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network in Chicago and can be reached at LGBTliberation@aol.com

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