Chicago is reeling from an explosion of violent crime following a policy change that drastically reduced the number of stops and searches being made by police.
The Windy City saw 95 homicides in the first two months of 2016, nearly double the number of killings in the same period last year.
The spike in violent crime comes after the Chicago Police Department, in response to pressure over police search policies, phased out the brief "contact card" officers are required to fill out after an encounter with a member of the public and replaced it with an "investigatory stop report" that is two pages long and more detailed.
The change was made to address concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union that the department was not sufficiently documenting its street stops, but officers object that the new form is time-consuming, redundant, and confusing.
After the introduction of the report, Chicago cops reduced their number of stops by 87 percent. Officers made 111,831 stops in January and February of 2015, and only 14,648 this year, according to department statistics. The number of guns seized over those months also dropped compared to last year.
The mild winter, feuds fueled by fights started on social media, and the availability of guns are also being blamed for the rise in murders and shootings. But the furor over the investigatory stop reports last week prompted interim Chicago Police Department Superintendent John Escalante to announce plans to simplify the form.
“There is a lot of contributors to the rise in murders and no direct correlation to police stops,” said Dean Angelo, president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police. “But is it a contributor? It could be.”
Angelo indicated the number of stops has been increasing since mid-February, and he welcomed the move to simplify the form.
“This is not a contact card where you tick a box; this is much more extensive,” Angelo told AMI Newswire. “I have been saying for months that this is a little much, that the training is inconsistent, the direction is inconsistent and the guidelines are inconsistent. There was a lot of confusion.”
The longer form was introduced following a private agreement between the CPD and the ACLU, which had earlier issued a scathing report on police stop-and-frisk practices. The ACLU threatened a lawsuit against the department if no changes to the policy were made.
John Hagerdorn, an associate professor with the department of criminal justice at the University of Chicago, does not believe there is a link between the drop in stops and the surge in murders and shootings.
"I think police have little to do with this," said Hagerdorn, an expert on Chicago's gang violence. "Homicide, worldwide, absent gang wars like the cartels on the border, is related to the desperation of young unemployed men. Desperation can be seen on the south and west sides and more cops or better computer programs won’t stem the tide."
Chicago, unlike New York, Los Angeles and Houston, has a consistently high rate of homicides, and that will not change any soon, said Hagerdorn. The spike in crime and the controversy over the reports are just parts of the wider turmoil within the police department and the city.
Three months ago, video was released showing a police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. While the shooting had happened a year previously, the officer, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with murder only after a court ordered the release of the video.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing accusations his office tried to quash the release of the video, and Superintendent Garry McCarthy was forced to resign.
State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, a central figure in the McDonald scandal, faces a tough re-election primary fight. Sen. Dick Durbin and former Gov. Pat Quinn have both endorsed her main opponent, Kim Foxx.
In addition, the Department of Justice, following the shooting, announced it is probing Chicago's policies and practices.
All this is having an effect on officers on the street, said Angelo
“It’s a challenge. There’s a lot going on in Chicago, and there is a lot going on in the rest of the country,” said Angelo. “Every day, there is a new headline, a new accusation. Officers are not looking forward to being in the next YouTube video or headline.”
Escalante echoed that position in a video message to officers, one aimed at easing fears they could be the subject of the federal probe.
“We are aware there is a concern among the rank-and-file about not wanting to be the next YouTube video that goes viral,” Escalante said. “We understand there is a difference between a mistake and misconduct.”
Escalante said the Justice Department is not targeting officers, but looking at wider issues involving policing in the city.