Experts Demur As U.S. Attorney General William Barr Declares Success Against Chicago Gun Violence

William Bill Barr
U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at an August 19 news conference in Kansas City, Mo., about Operation Legend, a federal program aimed at reducing violent crime in several cities. In Chicago on Wednesday, he said the program had resulted in a 50% reduction in murders in the city. Charlie Riedel / AP
William Bill Barr
U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at an August 19 news conference in Kansas City, Mo., about Operation Legend, a federal program aimed at reducing violent crime in several cities. In Chicago on Wednesday, he said the program had resulted in a 50% reduction in murders in the city. Charlie Riedel / AP

Experts Demur As U.S. Attorney General William Barr Declares Success Against Chicago Gun Violence

Criminologists are dismissing claims by President Donald Trump’s chief law-enforcement officer that beefing up the federal role in the fight against Chicago gun violence is having a big impact and that the city has turned a corner after a shooting surge that reached historic intensity this summer.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, speaking Wednesday at a news conference in Chicago, said adding 200 federal agents in the city resulted in a 50% drop in murders during the five weeks after the effort began July 22.

Jens Ludwig, an economist who directs the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, compared that number of agents to the 13,000 police officers that were already on the ground.

The feds may have played a role in reducing violence, Ludwig said, “but I’d be very surprised if it was the dominant role.”

Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan, another expert on crime and policing, said there’s no telling whether the agents, detailed to the city as part of an effort dubbed Operation Legend, had a big effect.

“Chicago is a big city with lots of moving parts,” Skogan said. “The Chicago Police Department was on 12-hour shifts, many officers working seven days a week for extended weeks.”

“They were also very effectively mobilized — big new strike forces formed for the summer, a lot of intensive focus on hotspots,” Skogan said.

Skogan also pointed to city-funded street outreach organizations that employ former gang members to try to avert shootings.

“It’s impossible in a short period of time in a summer with many, many things happening at the same time to parse out the effects of the federal intervention versus the local intervention versus the nonprofit street-worker intervention.”

After Barr’s news conference, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her administration appreciates the federal resources but said the agents have not been in Chicago long enough to have made a significant impact.

“We started to see a downward trend in shootings and homicides, really, beginning in late July,” Lightfoot said. “The first additional federal agents that came to Chicago as part of Operation Legend didn’t even get here until Aug. 3.”

Even then, she said, the added agents trickled into the city throughout the month.

“Nobody should be taking a victory lap,” Lightfoot said of Barr’s Chicago visit. “I think that does disservice to the many victims of violent crime, and particularly gun violence, in our city.”

But Trump is pinning his reelection hopes on claims that he’ll bring law and order.

At Barr’s news conference, the attorney general seemed to suggest that the feds — in just a few weeks — had solved half of a homicide problem that has plagued the city for decades.

“The basic premise of Operation Legend is that by taking chronic violent criminals off the street, we will force crime rates down,” Barr said. “I am pleased to report that Operation Legend is working. Crime is down and order is being restored to this great American city.”

Ludwig said it was premature to declare success.

“We’ve seen situations in the past where there can be what looks like an encouraging trend from one month to the next but then it goes right back the following month,” he said.

The city’s gun violence has been up most of the year. The pandemic and the unrest after George Floyd’s killing seemed to make things worse.

In July, the Chicago Police Department counted 105 murders, the most of any July in more than 63 years — as far back as the police could provide solid data.

In August, the police department tallied 63 murders. That was more than any August since 2016 but, compared to July, it was an improvement.

“Part of what we could be seeing is the department getting its sea legs under it with new leadership,” Ludwig said, referring to police Supt. David Brown’s tenure, which began in April.

Ludwig also said neighborhood youth programs and the street outreach and violence interruption efforts are now “figuring out how to operate effectively” in the COVID era.

Barr said Operation Legend — a joint partnership with local authorities, including the Chicago police — has led to federal charges against 124 defendants, including 90 facing firearms charges. The operation is also taking place in other cities that have seen spikes in violence this year.

The operation’s head in Chicago is John R. Lausch Jr., the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois, who appeared with Barr at the news conference.

Through Sunday, the Chicago Police Department had counted 524 murders during the year, up 52% from the same period last year. The city is on pace to exceed the number of murders in 2016, the worst year since 1996.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.