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Chicago, crime and the complicated truth behind 'defund the police' efforts

Critics see Chicago as emblematic of chaos that could follow decreases in police funding. Experts say the relationship between policing and gun violence is nuanced.
George Floyd Protests And Riots In Chicago
Protesters clash with police in Chicago on May 30, 2020, during a protest against the death of George Floyd.Jim Vondruska / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

CHICAGO — Over Memorial Day weekend, Chicago experienced its most violent day in 60 years, with 18 people killed and more than 45 others shot in 24 hours.

The tragic weekend, which occurred in the midst of massive citywide protests against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, was quickly seized on by several critics of the "defund the police" movement, who used the shootings as an example of what would happen if police budgets and manpower are cut.

"It is beyond comprehension that Democrats' response to this trend would be to reduce police protection," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tweeted: "Chicago police were absorbed in the demonstrations and left most of the city wide open for criminals. 'Defund the Police' is a slogan of suicidal implications adopted by people with no contact with reality. Ask them about the Chicago crime rate."

While those critics and others have pointed to Chicago as emblematic of the chaos that could ensue if police funding decreases, experts say that the assertion is inaccurate and that the relationship between policing and gun violence in the city is much more nuanced.

"It's a weak argument to hold up any one day or weekend as an example of some broader point. It's better to compare longer periods of time against three- or five-year averages," said Thomas Abt, a researcher and senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a Washington policy institute.

IMAGE: Barbershop shooting in Chicago
Chicago police process a crime scene after at least five people were reported to have been shot at Pulaski Road and Maypole Avenue on Jan. 16, 2020.errence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune via Getty Images file

Abt said other factors may have led to a spike in shootings that weekend. For instance, the first warm days of the season — when lots of people are outside — are often marred by shootings, and not just in Chicago, he said.

John Hollywood, a policing researcher at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank, said of the uptick in violence: "You could have the fact that police were distracted, but there are also a lot of other factors. There was a lot of pressure loaded up with people being cooped up for a long period of time and added social stress with protests, riots and civil unrest."

But despite the correlation highlighted by critics, researchers argue that the idea of "defunding the police," which has been interpreted many ways, and its effect on gun violence in Chicago is complex.

"There is a large body of evidence that conclusively shows that more police resources and manpower does reduce crime, and that is an empirical fact we have to reckon with," said Max Kapustin, senior research director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. "But there is also evidence that shows that other social policies, like investments in education, health and targeted therapeutic intervention, also reduce crime."

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

The call to "defund the police" largely seems to fall under the idea of re-envisioning efforts to maintain public safety, Kapustin said.

Police are often called on for issues they are ill-equipped or untrained to handle, such as helping with the homeless or those with mental illness, and there is logic to having experts resolve those problems instead of police, he said.

"Even if we're reducing the scope of what police are asked to deal with, we still want them to do the things they will deal with well," Kapustin said. "You're still going to want them to act professionally and treat people fairly, and that might require more resources."

Chicago allocated more than $1.7 billion, about 14.5 percent of its annual budget, to police; Los Angeles has allocated a similar total — $1.7 billion of its $10.7 billion budget — albeit with one million more residents than Chicago. New York City, meanwhile, appropriated $5.6 billion, or about 6 percent of its total budget, for NYPD operations.

Chicago’s police budget makes up nearly 40 percent of the city’s general funds used for operations and services like public safety and public health. Los Angeles, by comparison, spends about 26 percent of general funds on policing.

While Chicago and Houston feature similar population sizes, Chicago spends about $250 more per person on policing each year.

Spending on policing in Chicago has steadily increased over the last decade, and it has been heavily criticized by proponents of the "defund the police" movement.

"The best way to keep our communities safe and address police brutality is not by spending more on policing, but instead by investing in jobs, education and health care. It's time for our city to seriously look at cutting the police budget and directing those funds to the public programs that will support working-class and poor Chicagoans," six members of the City Council wrote in favor of police disinvestment in a Chicago Sun Times op-ed last week.

Image: Gun violence in Chicago
Chicago police investigate a scene where gunfire at a birthday party left a man dead and a woman injured on Aug. 7, 2016.Ashlee Rezin / AP file

While allocating money for community services is beneficial in many ways, evidence has shown that public safety is maintained through funding specifically for that purpose, Hollywood said.

"It can't just be that you are taking money out of the police and then putting it into community development that doesn't necessarily have a relationship to providing improved security. It needs to be about providing safety and security," Hollywood said.

Hollywood said interventions to reduce violence by targeting issues like drug use or environmental conditions usually fix only those things and tend not to reduce violence.

"What tends to reduce violence are programs and specific interventions and strategies specifically related to reducing violence," he said. "But that doesn't necessarily have to be policing in the way it's been done."

An argument can be made for experimenting with partnerships and community problem-solving interventions that are committed to reducing violence, Hollywood said. "In fact, you should be funding things that are proven to be more effective and move away from things that are less effective, especially if they are also causing community relations and civil rights concerns," he said.

Deterrence intervention programs, which focus on those at high risk of being involved in violence, have been effective, he said.

The Group Violence Intervention model from the National Network for Safe Communities uses partnerships among community members, law enforcement and social service providers to directly engage with people involved in street groups.

The program has shown results in cities like Boston, where shootings fell by 27 percent in 2018, according to the organization.

Alternatively, there are community problem solving interventions, such as the Cure Violence model by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which uses "violence interrupters" and outreach workers who generally act independent of law enforcement, have also been effective, he said.

Iterations of both of these programs have been used in Chicago. "Violence interrupters" from social service organizations were able to mediate tensions this month between Black and Latino communities that began violently feuding, according to Block Club Chicago, a local newspaper.

While other large cities, like New York and Los Angeles, have pledged some form of divestment, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has served on police oversight committees like the Chicago Police Board and the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, has been hesitant to accept any proposal that would reduce the police budget.

Instead, she has focused on making what she called "bold" changes that would enact various reform measures, including licensing and certification of police officers, as well as reassess use-of-force protocols through a task force.

"The 'defund the police' narrative unnecessarily puts police and communities in competition with each other for funding. It shouldn't be an either/or question. It should be a both/and question," said Abt of the Council on Criminal Justice, who wrote the book "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — And a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets."

"In Chicago and across the country, police are a necessary but not sufficient aspect of violence reduction," he said. "We absolutely need more anti-violence programs that do not rely on the police, but we need those in addition to the police, not instead of the police."

What need re-examining are police violence and accountability, he said. Strengthening internal discipline, flagging questionable conduct through early warning systems and establishing accountability protocols, such as requiring a report every time a gun is pointed, can all play positive roles in reducing excessive use of force, he said.

Kapustin said that while there is no clear-cut approach to what is best for Chicago, the most critical thing to keep in mind when considering policy or budgetary changes are the communities that will be most affected.

"The communities that are bearing the brunt of all the well-placed mistrust and anger at law enforcement and the justice system, those same communities are also faced with tremendous amounts of violence," he said. "They are the ones caught in the middle."