Billions are spent on fighting Chicago crime. What does it do?

This election season, we asked Chicagoans to contribute to the People’s Agenda with questions and comments they want the next mayor to address. Here’s one on the money spent to fight Chicago crime.

The People’s Agenda
The People’s Agenda

Billions are spent on fighting Chicago crime. What does it do?

This election season, we asked Chicagoans to contribute to the People’s Agenda with questions and comments they want the next mayor to address. Here’s one on the money spent to fight Chicago crime.

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More than 53% of about 1,900 respondents to the People’s Agenda survey from WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times expressed concern about crime and justice, the top issue in the survey.  They include L. Bowers, a lifelong South Sider who grew up in Beverly and now lives in Hyde Park.

Bowers wanted to know:

“Why haven’t the billions of dollars a year the city has spent on policing yielded more results?”

First, let’s consider some context. The city had 697 murders in 2022, according to police data. About 90% were the result of shootings. Last year’s murder tally, although horrendous, has been typical for Chicago. Over the past six decades, the city has averaged 673 murders a year. In fact, Chicago hasn’t had fewer than 500 murders since 2015 and not fewer than 400 since 1965.

At the same time, Chicago spends more and more on its police. I crunched some FBI data and found that, among 298 big cities reporting in 2020, Chicago had more cops per capita than any except Washington, D.C. Since taking office in 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has increased police spending every year. CPD’s budget for this year is $1.94 billion. Add in costs such as pensions, lawsuit settlements, overtime overruns and fleet management, and annual police spending exceeds $3 billion.

“I don’t want this city that I love to be continually associated with murder,” Bowers told me. “We have to focus on root causes.”

What are the root causes of Chicago’s violence?

To help me break down what’s driving the city’s gun violence, I called Andrew Papachristos, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies it. “It ultimately boils down to neighborhood inequality — how we built this city,” he said. Papachristos said the inequality owes to everything from substandard housing to poor transit, from lead pipes to joblessness and a lack of health clinics — “how we built boundaries and distributed resources over centuries.”

During the past two decades, the city’s poorest neighborhoods have suffered a larger and larger share of the city’s gun violence — a widening “safety gap” that especially hurts Black Chicagoans.

But Papachristos said poverty alone does not explain the shooting surge of recent years. In addition to root causes, he said, we have to consider proximate causes such as gun availability, gang fracturing and COVID.

“These shocks affect some neighborhoods more than others,” he told me.

Back to our question: Why isn’t the spending on CPD more effective?

Papachristos said cops can’t usually prevent crime. What they can do, he said, is respond to it and “try to arrest the person who did it.”

“We know that certain kinds of policing — stop and frisk — do not help,” he said.

Papachristos told me he also has doubts about CPD’s soaring number of traffic stops in low-income neighborhoods — now the department’s main method of seizing illegal guns. “For every gun you get, how many unnecessary stops are you going to have?” he asked. “That’s going to erode trust in the police.”

To South and West side motorists, the traffic stops can be more than inconvenient. They can be terrifying, especially after last month’s release of video showing Memphis officers fatally beating Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop.

The erosion of trust makes it harder for police to get the community’s help to solve crimes. “That’s a police function that’s not currently operating well,” Papachristos said, referring to CPD’s failure to bring most shooters to justice.

One thing Papachristos recommends is ramping up spending on community violence intervention — an emerging profession in which former gang members reach out to shooters and potential shooters, mediate their conflicts and connect them to services ranging from trauma therapy to transportation, from job training to parenting support.

“The average age of a Chicago shooting victim is 28 years old — not a school-aged kid,” Papachristos said. “We need an approach to respond to events today, to keep people alive, while also giving people a path to healing.”

Bowers, the listener who posed our question, believes curbing Chicago’s gun violence begins with positive influence at home: “My daughter knows she is not to bring dishonor to herself or her family.

“Just because you’re poor doesn’t make you hurt someone,” Bowers told me.

Candidates’ plans

If Chicago cops can’t prevent much crime and they’re failing to solve most shootings, what, we wondered, could city officials do instead?

My WBEZ colleague Mariah Woelfel and I looked into whether the candidates running for mayor in the Feb. 28 municipal election have any compelling ideas. We dove into their published plans and campaign statements, looking for neighborhood investments that might dramatically reduce the city’s gun violence.

We found a smattering of proposals but not much about the needed scale of investment nor where the money would come from. Most of the mayoral candidates, responding to a WBEZ and Sun-Times questionnaire, said they would address the inequality issues raised by Papachristos without shifting resources from the police. Only state Rep. Kam Buckner and South Side activist Ja’Mal Green said they would reallocate some CPD money to programs that address the root causes of crime.

WBEZ reporter Chip Mitchell covers public safety and policing.