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The Chicago River Runs Red

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago River Runs Red

Chicago, immortalized by Carl Sandburg as the city of “The Big Shoulders…”, has now earned the nickname “Chiraq” thanks to the bloodshed on its streets. 

In 2016, America’s “Second City” saw 3,550 shootings wounding more than 4,000 people, an increase of 1,000 from 2015. Murders soared to a 60 year high of 762, up 57 percent from 2015.  Almost all of these atrocities were perpetrated by some of the more than 150,000 gangbangers who infest the city, and took place in just five neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago.

All manner of excuse for this unprecedented violence has been put forward by present and former Chicago police officials, the mayor and the media.  In his first mayoral term, Rahm Emanuel forced the Chicago Police Department to lose over 1,500 officers by attrition.  He claimed that by taking officers off desk duties and putting them on the street to replace retirees, he could save money and still keep the city safe. He failed. Instead his own son became the victim of a mugging, and street crime began to mount.

His first police superintendent, former NYPD deputy commissioner Garry McCarthy, originally blamed guns for the city’s woes. Now he says that the Black Lives Matter movement has made Chicago Police hesitant to work proactively. Current CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson places blame on a fanciful nationwide uptick in violence, lack of punishment for gun offenders, increased gang membership, and release of a video of the fatal shooting of a teenager by a CPD officer.

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Meanwhile nobody in City Hall or Police Headquarters seems to be making a coherent effort to stem this red tide. Just recently, Mayor Emanuel reversed course on staffing and plans to hire 1,000 more police officers, but they won’t be on the street for about 6 months. Meanwhile, veteran officers continue to retire as soon as they’re eligible because of low department morale.  The CPD continues to police cautiously, reacting to crimes rather than using the proactive strategies established under former Supt. McCarthy.

When murders aren’t solved, it emboldens criminals.

Another factor rarely mentioned is that the department’s detective force is woefully understaffed. CPD has about 975 detectives in an agency of 12,000 sworn personnel.  It’s the smallest per capita investigative force of any major police department in the U.S.  By comparison, Los Angeles, with about 10,000 officers, has 1,600 detectives.  Chicago’s murder clearance rate is about 25 percent, compared to the LAPD’s record of 52 percent.

The situation in Chicago is so bleak that the president-elect has offered federal resources. Not a bad idea.  Many federal laws impose mandatory sentences for crimes like felons in possession of guns.  Joint task forces combining police with federal agencies like the DEA, FBI, US Marshals and ATF, have had great success in suppressing violent urban crime.  Another hurdle is that Chicago is the major Midwest distribution point for drugs coming from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, with Chicago gangbangers wholesaling and retailing the product.

Arresting random gang members for street crimes is not an effective response. The gangs are organized criminal syndicates, fueled by drug money, and will only weaken with arrests and prosecutions under RICO, the federal racketeering laws.  This powerful legal weapon broke the back of the America Mafia.  It should now be used to take down Chicago’s street gangs…leaders and soldiers alike…removing these pack predators from society

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Another resourceful tactic to combat gang activity is the civil injunction, issued by courts to prevent gang members from congregating on streets, in vacant buildings or elsewhere. It’s been very successful in Los Angeles, helping to reduce murders and shootings in the troubled LAPD South Bureau, to levels well below the numbers in similar Chicago neighborhoods.

Chicago must embrace offers of federal help.

It’s also important for government to work with community leaders who can reach out to gang members, mobilize neighborhood support and spread the message that there is a better way than turning streets into killing fields.  Poverty is a major reason for young people to join gangs.  If the cycle isn’t broken with more jobs and help in keeping families intact, gangs will remain a large inner-city malignancy in Chicago.

The finger pointing and blame game by city officials and the plans they have to “beef up” police presence, isn’t going to end the carnage. Chicago must embrace the offer of “federal help” made by the incoming president so it can implement precision, cooperative policing, and give its citizens better lives in every neighborhood of the Windy City.


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Martin Schwartz
About Martin Schwartz 13 Articles
Martin Schwartz was a N.Y. police officer, a U.S. Treasury Special Agent (criminal investigator) attached to the U.S. Customs Service, an assistant district attorney in NYC, a special assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) and a special counsel to the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now a writer with prior published work in the N.Y. Times, U.S. News & World Report, U.S.A. Today and Newsday, and a consultant to law enforcement.
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