Here are the lessons from two decades of Chicago’s failed policing strategies

In a new book, Wesley G. Skogan says stop-and-frisk helped cops seize guns but damaged community trust — and efforts to solve shootings.

Chicago police stop
Chicago police officers stop a car in June 2012 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was ramping up the city’s use of stop-and-frisk as a policing tactic. Robert Ray / Associated Press
Chicago police stop
Chicago police officers stop a car in June 2012 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was ramping up the city’s use of stop-and-frisk as a policing tactic. Robert Ray / Associated Press

Here are the lessons from two decades of Chicago’s failed policing strategies

In a new book, Wesley G. Skogan says stop-and-frisk helped cops seize guns but damaged community trust — and efforts to solve shootings.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

When police suspect someone of a crime, they can stop that person. If they think the person has a weapon, they can pat them down. For more than a decade, the Chicago Police Department leaned heavily on stop-and-frisk as a strategy. Northwestern University political scientist Wesley G. Skogan wrote a new book, Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago, that says the strategy enabled police to seize a lot of guns and drugs in Black neighborhoods, but damaged community trust in CPD and hamstrung efforts to solve shootings. In late 2015, Skogan says, the stop-and-frisk strategy collapsed but CPD quickly adopted a strategy with similar drawbacks. He spoke with WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does stop-and-frisk look like as a strategy?

It involves stopping very large numbers of people, most of whom will turn out to be innocent, in hopes of arresting people who are carrying guns and drugs or giving them citations — and deterring people from carrying guns and drugs in the first place. As a result, you get fewer shootings and fewer dead bodies.

Stop & Frisk cover
Oxford University Press

When did Chicago embrace this strategy?

In 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley and police Superintendent Philip J. Cline decided they were going to systematize and prioritize making stops. It went along for more than a decade and reached its apogee under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He brought in a new police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, who had run stop-and-frisk operations in New York City. Within two years of McCarthy’s arrival in Chicago, it emerged as the city’s No. 1 policing strategy and rose to unexpected heights. Those stops became 3½ times as common in Chicago as in New York City. During the program’s peak year, 2014, Chicago officers made 740,000 stops. Around 2015, in some African American neighborhoods, more people were being stopped every year than lived there. It was an enormous burden on those communities. But it was very much the Police Department policy to make the stops there.

The same young men must have been getting stopped over and over.

Yeah, and think of a police officer who is part of a special unit and told to go to a particular neighborhood and, for a week, stop people and make searches. What does he have to go on? He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know the neighborhood. He doesn’t know when people come and go. What he can identify are young males. And, overwhelmingly, that’s who gets stopped.

What was it like to be stopped?

Well, for young Black males, stops involved being handcuffed, shouted at, pushed around and threatened — all kinds of roughhouse tactics in the street. And most of these people were allowed to walk away because they were carrying nothing and breaking no laws. They were innocent.

Was the strategy successful against gun violence?

It was pretty clear that it was relatively inefficient, only somewhat effective and extremely inequitable. The deterrent effect on shootings and homicides was about 8.5%. That means they were down 8.5% from what they would have been without stop-and-frisk. When it comes to equity, African American neighborhoods in Chicago were both under-policed and over-policed — at the same time. They were under-policed in that the police weren’t catching anybody, crimes weren’t being cleared and residents felt that they were getting bad police service. They were over-policed in that the strategy led to so many unwarranted stops — what I call innocent stops. They were mammothly concentrated in Black neighborhoods.

Why did Chicago’s stop-and-frisk program end?

The program reached this crescendo in 2014-2015. Then, in November 2015, Chicago had one of the most dramatic events in its recent political history — the release of the videotape showing the shooting of Laquan McDonald by police, which sent perceived police legitimacy in Chicago into a downward spiral. There was enormous public pressure to get something done. And stop-and-frisk was one of the victims, perhaps a welcomed victim, of that political pressure.

Northwestern University political scientist Wesley G. Skogan
Northwestern University political scientist Wesley G. Skogan. Courtesy of Wesley G. Skogan

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Chicago Police officers had gone “fetal.”

That’s right — that they were afraid to do anything or to stop people. That turned out to be baloney. If you actually dig into the math, the vast databases that police departments generate — everywhere from the 911 center to their arrest operations — what you find was that they changed strategies. The most dramatic of these was the sudden rise of traffic stops. Traffic stops went through the ceiling following the collapse of stop-and-frisk. So cops were still keeping busy, cops were still making stops. They simply switched to a different venue, the car, where they had more legal pretextual reasons to make stops.

The pretexts were minor traffic violations such as a broken taillight.

That’s exactly right. It wasn’t that Chicagoans, all of a sudden, were driving more dangerously. More than 85% of the traffic stops were resulting in simply verbal warnings, giving the officer the opportunity to check their driver’s license and have a look around the car to see if there was something suspicious.

These traffic stops became the Police Department’s main way of seizing illegal guns. Block Club Chicago and Injustice Watch have found that, since 2015, CPD has carried out 4.5 million traffic stops. In 2021, the most successful year for seizing weapons during those stops, the police made 156 traffic stops for every gun arrest. What are the effects of making so many stops for one gun arrest?

One of the consequences of this enormous number of unwarranted stops — stops of innocent people — is that they come away with a very sour taste in their mouth. What they discover is that police officers don’t want to listen to what they have to say and the officers push them around and shout at them, even though they find nothing. What the people walk away with is a very bad experience, which undermines their trust in police and undermines the legitimacy of the police in Chicago. And that has consequences. The Chicago Police Department’s real problem, starting in the early 2010s, was the collapse of its ability to solve shootings and homicides. The number of those crimes for which they recover a gun, find a suspect, make an arrest, make what’s called a crime clearance — it began to plummet. It’s now extraordinarily low. And that limits the capacity of investigators — the detectives — to do much about crime. And because no one has been arrested, that leads many community members to conclude that the police aren’t trying hard, that they’re not paying attention to the lives of people like them, that they are not being protected.

Any suggestions for Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson?

The arrival of a new mayor and police superintendent is an opportunity for some new thinking about policy. We know a lot about things that will reduce crime in the streets. Chicago has already started to mount a pretty effective campaign using violence interrupters and related community organizations that provide services and support for young men who are in trouble. More of that is always welcome. We also know that a focused deterrence strategy — which drops the idea of stopping hundreds of people to deter one little crime and focuses instead on a very small network of high-risk, high-offending people — is a much more effective way to get more bang for your stops and more bang for your investigations. So, the incoming mayor should focus on this detective-oriented police work. Efforts to rebuild Chicago’s Black community are also really important. That community has been getting poorer and more isolated over time. Some dramatic action to try to bring Black Chicago back into the mainstream of city economic life is absolutely important.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at