As Chicago cops contend with an annual summer spike in gun violence and try to tamp down a shooting surge that began more than a year ago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office is challenging one of the city’s core policing strategies.
Foxx’s office this week held a webinar for journalists with data visualizations about a steady increase in Chicago police arrests of people who have no prior convictions but are caught illegally carrying a gun. It’s an approach that dragged more than 1,400 people into the criminal justice system last year. Those that are convicted get a label that dims job and life prospects and arguably decreases public safety in the long term.
“The evidence doesn’t show that the drivers of the violence are the people who’ve been arrested for nonviolent gun offenses,” wrote Sarah Sinovic, a spokeswoman for the office, referring to illegal possession of firearms. “State’s Attorney Foxx has long said we need to invest more in violence prevention and a more holistic approach to address the root causes of violence.”
Illinois bans gun possession without a valid firearm owner’s ID card. Even with a FOID, people who carry guns in vehicles must keep them unloaded if they are accessible in places like the glove compartment or under a seat.
According to data visualizations displayed by Foxx’s office during the webinar, CPD gun arrests have nearly doubled since 2014. That increase is mainly due to arrests for gun possession, a crime that Foxx’s office deems “nonviolent” because the gun is not used or fired.
Matthew Saniie, the office’s data chief, acknowledged that people who view guns as inherently violent may have difficulty treating their illegal possession as nonviolent. But prosecutors, he said, “have no idea if that person who possesses the gun has any intention of using that gun in an illegal way beyond possessing it or if they’re going to create violence with it.”
“It’s an important distinction,” Saniie said.
One chart displayed by Foxx’s office suggests that the increase in CPD’s gun-possession arrests owes mainly to street stops of people with no prior convictions. From 2011 to 2016, those arrests never exceeded 300 a year. Each year since then, however, has brought a big increase. By 2020, there were more than 1,400 and Saniie said CPD is on pace to exceed that number this year.
CPD arrest numbers for violent gun crimes, meantime, have trended down over the years, according to the presentation. So has the rate at which CPD solves shootings.
Saniie even criticized CPD efforts to seize guns — efforts that netted 11,343 firearms in 2020 and 5,148 this year up to Friday, according to the department.
“It’s a pretty staggering number,” Saniie said, “but less than 20% of those guns ever get linked back to any type of shooting.”
Saniie concluded that the arrests that come with those gun recoveries sweep up too many people who are not fueling the city’s violence: “It’s a question of arresting the right people.”
Addressing the impact of those arrests, Saniie said “a lot of people that will forever be marked as a felon [end up with] different life choices as a result of this.”
He also said felony convictions can have long-term impacts on families and communities: “This is the concern about all this policing.”
“This idea of constantly throwing policing at the problem to solve gun violence may not continue to reap rewards,” Saniie said during the presentation.
To tamp down a gun-violence surge that began in 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration expanded CPD by nearly 1,300 officers during 2017 and 2018, increasing sworn ranks to more than 13,400 cops, according to city data.
Saniie said the current gun-violence surge raises questions about that approach. The surge began last spring after the first weeks of the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
“Do we go back to the methods that we’ve been using for so long that helped get us to this point? Or do we start thinking about new methodologies of dealing with these issues, to try to break the cycle?”
WBEZ sent CPD written questions about whether the gun-arrest data is accurate and whether Supt. David Brown agrees that the department’s gun-arrest strategy is failing against the city’s violence. The department did not respond with answers.
“Those are conversions he’s had with the state’s attorney privately and confidentially,” said Tom Ahern, a department spokesman. “I can’t tell you what the superintendent is thinking.”
Foxx herself opened and closed the webinar but did not specify any policy implications for the data.
“What we did want to do,” Foxx said, “is to be able to have nuanced conversations about what is driving violence.”