“The streets are gone,” Chicago police-union boss Dean Angelo told me in August 2016. The night before, a Chicago police officer’s son had been killed in a shooting while sitting on his family’s porch, one of 92 people slain during the city’s worst month for homicides since July 1993. The August victims who actually survived their drive-by assaults included ten-year-old Tavon Tanner, shot while playing in front of his house (the bullet damaged Tavon’s pancreas, intestines, kidney, and spleen and is still painfully lodged between his shoulder and chest, despite several operations); an eight-year-old girl shot in the arm while crossing the street; and two six-year-old girls. At least 15 children under the age of 12 were shot in the first seven months of 2016, including a three-year-old boy who is now paralyzed for life following a Father’s Day drive-by shooting. The elderly are also victims. At noon on September 6, a 71-year-old man watering his lawn was accosted by a teen on a bike who demanded the man’s wallet; when he refused, the teen shot him in the abdomen, and then rifled through his pockets for the wallet before pedaling away.
By early September, homicides in Chicago for 2016 were up 47 percent over the same period of 2015, a year in which crime was already up significantly over 2014; nonfatal shootings were also up 47 percent. On Labor Day, nine people were killed, completing a holiday weekend tally of 13 shooting fatalities and 51 nonfatal shooting victims.
“There is no way out of this shooting spree,” Angelo said. His despair is understandable because Chicago is the country’s most glaring example of what I have called the “Ferguson effect.” Chicago officers have cut back dramatically on proactive policing, under the onslaught of criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement and its political and media enablers. Pedestrian stops in Chicago dropped 82 percent through September 27, 2016, compared with the same period in 2015. The cops are “driving by people on the corners,” Angelo tells me. “They’re not sweeping the corners clean any more.” As a result of this drop in discretionary enforcement, criminals are back in control and black lives are being lost at a rate not seen for decades.
Who can blame the Chicago cops for backing off of discretionary activity? They are responding to political signals being sent by the most powerful segments of society. President Barack Obama takes every opportunity to accuse the nation’s police of lethally profiling blacks and Hispanics. The media, activists, and academics routinely denounce pedestrian stops and public-order enforcement as racially driven oppression intended simply to “control African-American and poor communities,” in the words of Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt. Never mind that it is the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas who beg the police to clear their corners of large groups of teens and other loiterers. Those residents know through hard experience that such disorderly gatherings often produce shootings. But their voices aren’t heard by anyone, it seems, other than the police.
Further discouraging stop activity in Chicago is a misguided agreement signed in 2015 between the Illinois ACLU and the former police superintendent, mandating that all stop forms filled out by Chicago officers be forwarded for review to the ACLU, an organization not known for its unbiased evaluations of police activity. Also contributing to Chicago de-policing is the backlash from city hall’s mishandling of the unjustified fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
Chicago cops, like their counterparts in other urban areas in the Black Lives Matter era, now encounter aggressive hostility when they get out of their cars to investigate suspicious behavior. “People are blatantly disrespectful,” Angelo says. “They bait the police.” A few weeks after our conversation, aChicago Tribune reporter filmed a group of teens taunting officers for over an hour during a shooting investigation on the West Side. “F--- the police!” went one chant. “Get the f--- off my block!” came another insult. A black officer was singled out for particular abuse. “You a traitor! You a traitor! You bogus as hell!” one heckler said. “Black lives matter. You a b----,” said another. Someone fired off shots in a nearby alley just for the fun of seeing cops run toward another possible victim. “Run, b----, run!” a shirtless male shouted contemptuously, as the officers took off in a sprint. This chorus of naysayers was actually relatively benign compared with the violent resistance that officers now routinely experience during arrests, but the Tribune at least opened a window into the Black Lives Matter–inspired street reality that the media have heretofore refused to cover.
Two credible threats to assassinate Chicago officers were picked up over the summer: the first was apprehended by the National Gang Intelligence Center and the second by the Chicago PD. Forty officers have been targeted in gun assaults this year through September 15, up 100 percent from the same period in 2015 and 2014.
The media have offered every possible explanation for the anarchy other than the right one. Favorite theories include, as usual, poverty, racism, and lack of government services. Police superintendent Eddie Johnson also invokes “social and economic ills” as causes of the rising violence, but he focuses mostly on the argument that Chicago’s gun felons don’t receive harsh enough sentences. He may have a point, but it is one lost on Illinois’ Legislative Black Caucus, which blocks any effort to impose stricter mandatory minimum sentences on violent felons. (The caucus’s opposition to strengthened gun-crime statutes constitutes a sub-rosa acknowledgment that the vast majority of gun criminals in Chicago are black—80 percent of them, in fact.) Following particularly bloody weekends, Johnson reels off the weapons offenses of recent shooting victims (he focuses on victims because the no-snitch ethic usually prevents the identification of their shooters). Johnson’s litany of gun criminals who are back on the streets in little or no time destroys the favorite conceit among “criminal-justice reform” advocates that a racist system is imposing draconian sentences on harmless sad sacks.
But neither Johnson’s lax gun-sentencing explanation for the Chicago violence surge nor the media’s poverty-and-systemic-injustice explanation gets the timing right. Chicago’s violent crime started rising sharply in 2015 and continued into 2016. Sentencing protocols didn’t weaken in late 2014; gangbangers with guns got the same criminal-justice treatment before violence started rising as after. Nor did poverty or alleged racism worsen after late 2014. What did change was the intensity of antipolice ideology, driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, relentlessly amplified by the press, and echoed by President Obama.
The ideal solution to ending Chicago’s violence would be for more at-risk boys to be raised by both of their parents. Superintendent Johnson has admirably spoken out about family breakdown, the real “root cause” of inner-city violence. “When I go home at night, and I see my neighbors,” Johnson said after the Labor Day carnage, “they’re asking me how come African-Americans won’t step up to the plate and be parents to their children. So all of this fundamentally starts at home.” But until both mothers and fathers start raising their children together, the police will be the only thing standing between the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas and total anarchy. And when the police pull back, under the accusation that proactive enforcement is racist, it is the law-abiding who suffer.
“Where does this end?” Dean Angelo mused as our conversation wound down. “I don’t know. We’re in an unknown environment. We don’t know at what point in time the people in this city and the city council will stand up and say: ‘Enough is enough,’ so that cops again feel that they have the support to be the police again.”
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops.