As Chicago’s mayoral candidates have sparred over their vision of the city’s future, two themes have largely dominated the conversation: Crime and policing.
Whether Brandon Johnson or Paul Vallas wins, the new mayor will have to work with the current police leadership to tamp down rising crime and implement sweeping court-ordered reforms.
The candidates have presented vastly different plans to take on this daunting challenge.
Vallas, endorsed by Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, has pledged to lean into “proactive” policing and has committed to filling more than 1,700 department vacancies to address what he has described as an “utter breakdown of law and order.”
Although he has vowed to push forward with reforms, Vallas has sharply criticized a new policy limiting foot pursuits.
Johnson, a former educator and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, says he wants to address the root causes of crime by investing in schools, jobs, housing and mental health services.
But as the race has worn on, he’s walked back comments about defunding the police and recently said he won’t cut “one penny” from the Chicago Police Department’s budget.
With its leadership in flux, the department now faces a 45% increase in crime compared to the same point last year. Almost every crime category has climbed, including criminal sexual assault, robbery, aggravated battery, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft.
Murders and nonfatal shootings — the most serious crimes — have fallen this year compared to 2022 and a historic spike in 2021. Other big cities also saw murder totals fall last year.
Still, the number of murders recorded so far this year is nearly 50% higher than in 2019, the only year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s tenure that wasn’t affected by the pandemic and its fallout.
With those grim statistics facing the next mayor, the Sun-Times looked back to previous decades to see how crime and policing have changed — and how they’ve remained the same.
Murders and shootings
Chicago’s explosion in murders since the COVID-19 pandemic was a huge political liability for Lightfoot, whose loss in the February primary was attributed in part to voters’ fear of violent crime.
But the truth is that Chicago’s skyrocketing number of killings and shootings wasn’t unusual. Other big cities, including New York and Los Angeles, also saw spikes in those crimes during the pandemic and, like Chicago, are seeing those crimes now begin to ebb.
The places with the most killings have remained largely the same over the past two decades. At the top of the list in both 2002 and 2022 was the Harrison District on the West Side.
In 2002, about half the murders in Chicago resulted in an arrest. That rate fell under 30% in 2012 and was about the same last year.
Some experts say lower clearance rates embolden criminals because they feel the odds of getting caught are slim.
In the early 2000s, after Gov. George Ryan declared Illinois’ criminal justice system broken and granted clemency to prisoners on Death Row, legislators enacted reforms to keep police and prosecutors from wrongly convicting people. Those changes included videotaping statements in murder cases.
Since then, Cook County prosecutors often demand more evidence than a confession. That higher bar for prosecutions has resulted in fewer charges.
Another reason for the lower arrest rate: There are fewer investigators today than back in 2002.
Johnson has vowed to immediately promote 200 new detectives to bolster the clearance rate and solve other crimes.
Vallas has dismissed that plan, saying it “would do absolutely nothing” at a recent debate. He’s pledged to build the detective ranks to 10% of overall staffing and supplement those ranks with retired officers.
Arrests for other crimes have also plummeted. Over the past two decades, the Chicago Police Department has seen an overall 81% drop in arrests.
Many beat cops, sergeants and commanders give the same reason: Officers have become less aggressive in enforcing the law because they’re worried about making a mistake that could get them in trouble with a supervisor, fired or even charged with a crime.
They’re also afraid of being caught on camera and having their actions go viral. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that fear made cops “fetal” in October 2015, a month before video was released showing the fatal police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald, which led to the second-degree murder conviction of Officer Jason Van Dyke.
In December, Vallas said he’d reverse policies that “literally handcuffed officers” and prevented “proactive policing,” according to WTTW.
But civil rights advocates say the drop in arrests is a largely good thing, signaling that police reforms under a federal consent decree spurred by McDonald’s killing are gaining traction, resulting in fewer questionable arrests.
The number of traffic stops has risen almost as sharply as arrests have declined.
A police source who spoke on condition of anonymity said recently retired police Supt. David Brown made a push last year for cops to make more traffic stops because he thought the strategy would curb violence.
Brown and Lightfoot have repeatedly pointed to the importance of seizing guns, but a recent Block Club analysis found that rarely happens during about 0.6% of traffic stops.
The source said a car in his district was dedicated solely to making traffic stops. He said he drove a beat car and was asked to produce two “blue cards” a day, referring to the color of the traffic stop cards that officers must fill out.
“They didn’t care what we stopped them for as long as it was legit probable cause like no taillight, expired plates, no turn signal, parked in a tow zone, etc.,” the source said.
Allegations of quota-based policing dogged much of Brown’s tenure. The Community Safety Team, a citywide unit the former top cop built up and then quietly scaled back, remains at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit accusing then-Deputy Chief Michael Barz of implementing a quota system for certain measures of activity, specifically “blue cards.”
In the past, cops on specialized units were expected to make arrests for gun and drug crimes but “there’s a running joke where [tactical] teams are now called the ‘blue card police’ because the priority is on traffic cards,” the source said. “All they do are traffic stops.”
He said lots of those traffic stops don’t result in tickets — just warnings — because supervisors are more interested in being able to show their officers are making lots of stops.
Unlike murders, carjackings and motor vehicle thefts aren’t ebbing in the city.
Chicagoans have reacted to the most recent spike as if the city was never plagued by them. But two decades ago, there were far more carjackings than last year, according to police data.
What’s different is where they are occurring.
Last year, the top police district for carjackings was the Near West District, which covers relatively affluent areas like the West Loop and West Town. There were more than 1,300 carjackings there last year, police records show.
The Harrison District on the West Side, where the median income is much lower, was No. 2 on last year’s carjacking list.
Carjackings quadrupled last year in other high-income areas like the Central District, which covers downtown and the South Loop, and the Near North District, which covers River North and the Gold Coast.
By contrast, the No. 1 place for carjackings in 2002 was the Grand Central District, a working-class area on the Northwest Side, followed by the Harrison District.
The fact that the current wave of carjacking hit high-income neighborhoods hard is probably why publicity over those crimes — and the political backlash — has been far greater than in 2002, when there weren’t nearly as many stories about carjackings or motor vehicle thefts in the media.
During the final mayoral debate Tuesday, Vallas was asked how he would reduce crime in historically disadvantaged communities on the South and West Sides. In addition to keeping schools open during holidays and off-hours for “work-study opportunities” and prioritizing programs to help the formerly incarcerated, he highlighted his plans for community-based policing and hiring more cops.
Vallas wants to increase the ranks to 13,500 sworn officers, up from the 11,711 reported at the start of the month by the city’s inspector general. He claimed at least 400 retired or departed officers have already “indicated a willingness to come back” if he’s elected.
“There are 1,700 fewer officers than there were in 2019 and on any given day, half the priority 911 calls are not responded to because there simply is not a police car available to respond. So instead of getting a response in minutes, you get a response in hours,” Vallas said during the CBS-2 debate.
Johnson continued to insist he has no plans to strip funds away from the police department, despite his past comments. While he committed to recruit more officers, he also criticized Vallas’ lofty hiring goal, saying that many new officers aren’t “going to fly out of the air immediately.”
As a resident of the Austin neighborhood, which has long been impacted by drugs and violence, Johnson said his public safety plan is simple: “We have to invest in people.” Aside from promoting 200 detectives and prioritizing the consent decree, he promised a “holistic approach” that includes investments in jobs programs and mental health services.
“Which would you prefer, to have your crime solved or your crime prevented?” he said. “As the mayor of the city of Chicago, I’m working to make sure that we are preventing crime.”