EDITORIAL: Mayor Johnson, crime in Chicago is not a 'dynamic' it's a full-blown crisis


Chicago Tribune Editorial Board - November 5, 2023

There is no more important job for a big-city mayor than public safety.

Progressive politicians in recent years seem to have lost sight of that. We’ve heard plenty of brusque dismissals of traditional anti-crime methods. And lots of talk about focusing instead on the root causes of crime.

Chicagoans, are beginning to lose patience.

In West Town and Logan Square last week, a coalition of 10 community groups called on Mayor Brandon Johnson and police Superintendent Larry Snelling to crack down on armed robberies and carjackings plaguing the area over the summer and into the fall. They called, among other things, for Johnson and Snelling to meet with residents.

No commitment so far. Asked about it, Johnson told Block Club that “There’s work to be done.” He went on, then, to say, “We’re going to continue to work with the Police Department and the full force of government to address this dynamic, just like we’re addressing every single other dynamic in the city of Chicago.”

And therein lies a key part of the problem. Mr. Mayor, this isn’t a “dynamic” akin to “every single other dynamic.” It’s not a second-tier issue.

Johnson’s budget adds modestly to investment in more cops, and he’s called consistently for more detectives to try to improve Chicago’s woeful clearance rate on the most serious crimes. Homicides are down year-over-year, which is modestly good news. They remain way too high.

But what’s afflicting the public now is rampant armed theft, making it increasingly unsafe to walk neighborhood streets. Robberies are up a mind-boggling 57% so far this year. Many of those are armed robberies.

No, Mr. Mayor, this isn’t just another headache you must cope with while zealously pursuing your agenda of hiking taxes to fund more social programs. This is the job. It may not be the job you would prefer to do, but there isn’t anything more important on your plate.

Consider this: The police are warning retailers on Michigan Avenue — still the city’s retail and tourist epicenter despite the well-documented downtown woes that have dimmed its luster — to take steps to protect against crash-and-grab theft. Those are criminals ramming vehicles, typically stolen, into retail storefronts and then making off with as much as they can hold. They’re repeatedly doing so on the city’s iconic thoroughfare.

Neighborhood shops are getting hit too. The targets frequently are stores selling sneakers. Thieves have struck at one Wicker Park sneaker shop twice in less than two months.The first time they broke the window with a rock; the second they smashed through with a stolen SUV.

This is your city now, Mayor Johnson. And, no, it’s not a “dynamic.” It’s unacceptable. It’s making Chicago — a beautiful city, full of much of what’s best about urban America — into a place residents increasingly speak of leaving. Simply because the good things about living here for them aren’t worth … this. You hear it in the grocery line. You hear it at teacher meetings. Not a scientific poll, we understand, but it’s in the air.

Mr. Mayor, you’ve made it a high priority to stem Black outmigration. The best way to do that is to attack the crime issue head on.

The first step — one that seems simple — is to acknowledge it’s a crisis. Not a “dynamic.” Not some issue. The issue.

That doesn’t call, by the way, for deflecting by saying that other cities are suffering similarly. Mr. Mayor, hopefully you’ve noticed that many of your counterparts across the country not only are stating the obvious — that their streets are unacceptably unsafe — but they’re trying to determine what to do about it. And they’re asking voters to back them.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has introduced legislation to give police more tools to control youth congregations in certain areas and to beef up penalties for theft. She has publicly warned young residents of that city that “there are consequences” for violent crime. That includes carjacking. Taking someone’s car at the point of a gun is a violent crime.

A 13-year-old in the nation’s capital recently was shot dead by the owner of a car he was trying to steal, helping prompt the mayor’s appeal.

Could Chicago use a similar mayoral warning to the youth of this city? Yes, absolutely. Young voters helped propel Brandon Johnson to his election win. They might heed his words more than they heeded those of Lori Lightfoot.

That obviously won’t solve the problem by itself. But, again, the Johnson administration hasn’t even started with the basics: an acknowledgment that the current state of affairs is unacceptable and then putting perpetrators on notice that they won’t like the consequences if they continue.

Bowser isn’t the only U.S. mayor alarmed by crime and making it her top priority. Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler in September called on that state’s governor to deploy 100 state troopers to help the “overwhelmed” police with their jobs.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is putting a referendum on the March ballot asking voters to approve a series of measures aimed at freeing police to fight crime rather than jump through bureaucratic hoops. She’s at war with a Police Commission that her office says “governs by ideology.”

Crime crackdowns are the trend in far more U.S. cities than not. Chicago under Johnson is a progressive outlier.

We don’t pretend to know all the additional tools law enforcement could use to fight what looks to us now like a public safety war. A number of cities are revisiting restrictions on police chases of fleeing criminals. That’s something to consider. Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, says he will introduce an ordinance to revise the city’s policy on chases.

Clearly, more cops would help, and that is something the city is trying to do. The Biden administration wants to provide hundreds of millions to help cities put more police on the beat; Chicago should be first in line for that cash. Recruitment would go better in our view with a mayor who shows he gets the seriousness of the problem and is willing to tackle it.

Prosecutors and judges are part of the solution. A mayor and his Police Department can’t do this alone. But leadership starts with the mayor.

Chicago Tribune Opinion


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