Chicago has set aside one of its main crime-deterrence strategies, a police dataset obtained by WBEZ shows.
The strategy, adopted by former police Supt. Garry McCarthy, consisted of stopping and frisking people, time and again, to discourage them from carrying drugs and illegal guns.
Police stops of adults during this year’s first six months were down 84.1 percent from the same period last year, according to the data, requested under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Tallied by month, the number of stops has not changed significantly since falling off a cliff last winter (see chart below).
The drop was a reaction by officers to a public outcry over a cop’s videotaped killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. That outcry also led Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire McCarthy.
Many officers also did not appreciate an overhaul of the “contact card,” the form used for years to document stops. The form got longer January 1 because of a new state law and a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union. And it got a new name, Investigative Stop Report.
In April, McCarthy’s successor tried to reassure the City Council. “Every week we’re seeing a huge percentage of uptick in terms of the utilization of those forms,” police Supt. Eddie Johnson said. “So we’ll get there.”
The dataset shows that the department is not getting there. In June, officers stopped 8,883 adults, roughly one per cop during the month. That was even fewer than the May total, 9,238. As recently as last October, the monthly count was nearly 50,000.
This slowdown is often depicted as a problem, as if officers were refusing to engage in pro-active policing.
Some officers have fed that impression by talking up their “fetal” posture. Emanuel used that term last year to describe the performance of Chicago cops after high-profile police incidents in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri.
But Karen Sheley, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, sees Chicago’s stop-and-frisk slowdown as a good thing. “We always thought there were too many stops and too many interactions between young people of color and the police department,” she said.
The 4th Amendment does not allow stopping someone without a reasonable suspicion that a crime is afoot.
“So, once there was supervision over these stops, we anticipated that the number would go down,” Sheley said.
But that leaves a question: How has the drop-off in stops affected police productivity?
A clue comes from a WBEZ analysis of a different police dataset, the department’s inventory of recovered firearms. The analysis shows that officers are seizing as many guns this year as in the last few years.
University of Illinois at Chicago criminologist Dennis Rosenbaum points out that much of the city’s stop-and-frisk activity focused on geographic “hot spots” where crime was high. “So it’s a saturation approach,” he said.
In those neighborhoods, police were stopping as many people as they could. “A lot of those investigatory stops are probably less fruitful and less likely to yield guns,” Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum called it “a very real possibility” that police stops this year are “much more surgical and focused on repeat violent offenders.”
WBEZ’s findings “look encouraging for the Chicago Police Department,” Rosenbaum said.
A statement from police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi points out that stopping and frisking people is not the only way to seize firearms.
“Illegal gun recovery is a priority of the department and is achieved through a variety of strategies, including search warrants, traffic stops, targeted raids, citizen tips, etc.,” the statement said.
Even though officers are taking tons of illegal guns off the street, as they have for years, they are not doing as well keeping people from firing the weapons still out there. Shootings are way up this year.
Sheley, the ACLU attorney, insisted there is no relation between the number of stops and this year’s increase in violence.
A WBEZ analysis of police data, published in May, shows negative trends over the years as officers made more stops: Gun seizures dropped, detectives solved fewer murders, and a decade-long decline in gun violence ended.
“We know that there are some anonymous officers who are trying to make a link between [stops and shootings],” Sheley said. “There are always people who don’t want to be supervised.”
“But that lack of supervision led to a high number of stops, [which] contributed to a crisis of confidence in the police that’s currently ongoing in the black community,” Sheley said. “And that crisis of confidence hasn’t made anyone safer.”
Sheley says if officers are being more judicious about who they stop and frisk, they will get more help from the community to fight crime.