One sometimes hears of politicians enjoying a “honeymoon” period in the early days after taking office. During these honeymoons, political differences are for the moment put aside so the newly installed officeholder can put his administration in place unperturbed by petty squabbles. In Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected in April and sworn in on May 20, the honeymoon is already over.
Regular readers will recall I have a special fondness for Chicago, where I first visited more than 30 years ago and made friendships that have lasted to this day. So it saddens me to watch from afar as the city’s reputation for culture, architecture, and professional sports is overshadowed by its reputation for corruption and crime. To cite just one of the latest examples of corruption, Alderman Ed Burke, who has served on the city council for 50 years, is facing federal racketeering and bribery charges after being secretly recorded by Alderman Daniel Solis, who, facing corruption allegations of his own, cooperated with the FBI and wore a wire for at least two years during meetings with Burke and other city officials.
Political corruption is an enduring feature of life in Chicago, and despite Mayor Lightfoot’s previous experience as an assistant U.S. attorney, it’s more likely that by the time she leaves office she will have been consumed by or adapted to the Chicago Way than have done anything significant to alter it.
But a mayor can do something about crime, as Rudy Giuliani proved in New York, where he installed William Bratton as police commissioner with the instruction to reverse the city’s descent into dystopian mayhem. The result: murders and other violent crime in New York fell dramatically and have remained low. In 1990, 2,245 people were murdered in the city; in 2018 the number was 289.
The map nearby, from the Chicago Tribune’s crime database, shows the distribution of the 1,043 people who have been shot this year in Chicago as of June 10.
A horrific number, to be sure, but still short of the numbers seen by the same date in each of the last four years. But, unlike New York of the 1990s, there is no evidence in Chicago of a political consensus to do what must be done to reduce violence on the streets. And Mayor Lightfoot, in the opening days of her administration, has only made things worse by picking a needless fight with the city’s police department.
Appearing on a local cable news show on May 30, Lightfoot made the astonishing allegation that the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing rank-and-file officers, had instructed its members to be passive when dealing with crime over the Memorial Day weekend. “But you know,” she told interviewer Ken Davis, “there were rumors floating around about — and I didn’t verify this — but rumors floating around that they were telling their officers, ‘Don’t do anything. Don’t, over Memorial Day weekend, don’t intercede. If you see some criminal activity just lay back, do nothing.’ I hope to God that wasn’t true because, man, oh man, if that happened, there’s going to be a reckoning.”
There’s going to be a reckoning, all right, Madam Mayor, it just won’t be the one you thought it would be.
As Rudy Giuliani knew, and as Lori Lightfoot does not, it takes a motivated police force to take the steps necessary to drive down the level of violence seen in Chicago. “Cops count,” as William Bratton has preached for years, but in order for them to make a difference, they have to have the expectation that if they act within the law and department policy, their superiors and their city government will back them when controversy arises. Cops in Chicago have no such expectation, and it appears unlikely Mayor Lightfoot will even try to instill one.
No matter what kind of pep talk a cop hears from his watch commander in roll call, no matter how much chaos is taking place on the streets of his patrol district, when that cop leaves the station at the start of his shift he must make a decision. Will he go out and do his utmost to detect and deter wrongdoing, placing those responsible under arrest when called for? Or will he simply handle his assigned radio calls and take reports when called to do so, but otherwise not exert himself in the pursuit of lawbreakers? Either way, the pay is the same.
What every cop knows, most especially in Chicago, is that when he drives down the street and sees signs of trouble, he can choose to do something about it or drive on by and ignore it. Those 1,043 shooting victims depicted on the map above, they were shot by people whose fear of the consequences was insufficient to deter them from carrying a gun and using it when they felt the urge. Opening the summer shooting season in true Chicago fashion, at least 43 people were shot in the city over the Memorial Day weekend, seven of them fatally. So far in June (as of this writing), 147 people have been shot, 16 of them fatally.
When a cop notices someone whose behavior suggests he’s carrying a gun – the way he walks or the way he tugs at his clothing or any of a number of indicators a good cop can recognize – the cop knows if he gets out of his car to confront the person, he may have to chase him, fight with him, maybe even shoot him, all of which will be captured on the camera he wears, the one in his car, the ones that installed throughout every neighborhood, and the ones that are carried by nearly everyone on the street in the form of a cellphone. And the cop knows that even if his actions are unambiguously legal and perfectly justified, if those actions result in an injury to the suspect they will be criticized by his superiors, politicians, the media, and of course the “community,” some of whose members believe that an armed and resisting suspect has the absolute right to an injury-free arrest, a belief that is seldom if ever countered by those same superiors, politicians, and media.
Making matters worse in Chicago is the city’s enfeebled justice system under state’s attorney Kim Foxx, she of the Jussie Smollet disappearing charges debacle. Of the 19 people arrested in Chicago for gun violations over the Memorial Day weekend, 11 were back out on the street by Tuesday. Seven of them were previously convicted felons and six had prior gun charges.
Another thing to notice about that map of Chicago shooting victims: though the incidents are concentrated on the city’s south and west sides, there have been shootings in the Loop, the Gold Coast, and Lincoln Park, neighborhoods once considered all but immune from such violence. Add to this the now almost routine violence seen on Michigan Avenue, the heart of Chicago’s tourist area, and you have a recipe for Chicago’s further decline.
And now a question for Mayor Lightfoot: Now that the honeymoon is over, what are you willing to do about it?