Is Chicago’s Gun Violence Surge Due To Bail Reform? Top Cop Still Can’t Prove It.

David Brown
Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, photographed during a May news conference, claimed on Tuesday that July 4 weekend shootings were due to judges releasing defendants before trial. But Brown has failed to back up his claims with evidence. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
David Brown
Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, photographed during a May news conference, claimed on Tuesday that July 4 weekend shootings were due to judges releasing defendants before trial. But Brown has failed to back up his claims with evidence. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Is Chicago’s Gun Violence Surge Due To Bail Reform? Top Cop Still Can’t Prove It.

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown insists he knows what’s driving the city’s gun violence. He says he wants a public debate about it. He says the media will eventually catch on and help forge the change he envisions. He’s adamant.

But, so far, he has not provided more than anecdotes to show that Chicago’s shooting surge, part of a national trend, has anything to do with Cook County bail reforms or pandemic measures that let more criminal defendants wait for their trial on electronic monitoring instead of in jail.

After at least 107 people were shot, 17 fatally, from late Friday afternoon to early Tuesday morning, Brown held a news conference and implored journalists to help build pressure to keep more pretrial defendants locked up.

“The courts are not meting out justice that changes the behavior, meaning more serious consequences for illegal gun possession and violent offenders,” Brown said at the news conference. “The media will change it.”

When one of the journalists pressed for evidence that pretrial defendants were fueling the violence, Brown pointed to just three instances. He said CPD had arrested two people on electronic monitoring for “violent crime” over the weekend and referred to an arrest back in April. The three cases account for just a sliver of the violence that has hit the city since then.

Brown is not alone among Chicago-area officials attacking bail reforms and judicial responses to the pandemic — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Sheriff Tom Dart have also taken part. But, as the summer intensifies the violence and the superintendent’s policing strategies face more questions, the top cop seems increasingly desperate to provide a simple explanation.

Brown may be short on data but bashing “the courts” has become an almost daily ritual.

Retaliation targets?

Bail reforms since 2017 and the pandemic responses are allowing more people out of jail and expanding the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program, which requires defendants to wear a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet that tracks their location and requires them to stay home.

As of Tuesday, according to Dart’s office, 3,519 people were on electronic monitoring, up from about 2,200 four years ago. The office says 72% of them are pretrial defendants charged with a violent crime. Those defendants include 100 people charged with murder, up from 32 four years ago according to the office.

“Electronic monitoring was intended to ensure that individuals facing low-level, nonviolent [charges] appear in court,” Matt Walberg, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, wrote Tuesday. “It was not designed for violent offenders.”

Brown’s news conference focused largely on the murder defendants. He said releasing them fuels a sense of lawlessness and puts innocent people at risk when the defendants become retaliation targets.

“The courts have created an unsafe environment for large crowd gatherings because [they] have released people charged with murder back into these same communities where they have committed these heinous crimes,” Brown said.

But CPD spokespeople, asked how many people on electronic monitoring have been shot at, did not provide numbers.

At the news conference, Brown said CPD keeps “a running total of people” on electronic monitoring who are arrested for violent crimes. He pointed to April’s fatal shooting of 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams outside a McDonald’s restaurant on the West Side. The superintendent said one of the case’s defendants was on electronic monitoring at the time.

But the police spokespeople, asked to provide the rest of that “running total,” have not done so.

“We’re checking into it,” said Tom Ahern, one of the spokespersons.

A statement from Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans implied Brown was using the child’s killing to paint a false picture of what’s driving the city’s violence.

“Looking at individual tragic cases in isolation may contribute to the speculation that releasing individuals before trial rather than incarcerating them — whether by placing them on electronic monitoring or other forms of supervision — means an increase in crime,” Evans said. “But speculation based on isolated cases is not the same as reality based on a complete picture, and research has shown that bail reform has not led to an increase in crime.”

Evans pointed to a Loyola University study last November and provided numbers about murder defendants allowed out of jail. From Oct. 1, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2020, defendants facing murder, attempted murder or reckless homicide charges accounted for 1,150, or 1.3%, of new felony cases. Of those, 181 defendants (less than 16%) were released pretrial. Among those 181 released defendants, 94% were not charged with any new crime and nearly 99% were not charged with a new violent offense.

“The slight risk of reoffense would not have justified jailing even some murder defendants while they awaited trial,” the statement from Evans’ office said. “Prison before trial deprives defendants, who are presumed innocent, of their right to prepare for a defense, while leading to job loss and other personal and financial difficulties.”

In a similar vein, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office said Brown was “finger-pointing instead of talking honestly about the violence plaguing our city.”

Foxx’s statement said the solution to the violence “starts with apprehending those who pull the trigger,” a reference to charts her office screened last month as it accused CPD of failing to arrest “the right people” to curb gun violence. The charts show that CPD arrests for gun possession have soared in recent years while arrests for violent gun crimes, such as shootings and robberies, have declined.

Incarceration or prevention

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said there is a reason Brown is not providing evidence that shows releasing people on electronic monitoring is driving the city’s violence: There isn’t any.

But Mitchell, whose office represents defendants who cannot afford a private attorney, voiced sympathy for the top cop.

“We’re asking Supt. Brown to do the impossible,” Mitchell said. “Neither the police nor the court system will solve violence. In the end, we have to be thinking about how we approach this issue systemically.”

Mitchell said tax dollars should be shifted from arrests and incarceration toward “actually preventing these incidents from happening.”

At his news conference, Brown said he supports a “whole of government” approach to gun violence, borrowing a phrase used by President Joe Biden’s administration.

“The best way to reduce crime is to prevent it in the first place,” CPD spokesperson Don Terry explained later, “which means social workers, teachers, faith leaders. It’s the whole of government and community, and it’s all hands on deck.”

Asked whether Brown would support shifting some of the Police Department’s $1.7 billion annual budget to those public-safety efforts, Terry declined to comment.

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