Zach Fardon, who was Chicago’s U.S. attorney until Monday, puts a good deal of blame for the city’s high violent crime rate on cops being discouraged from stopping and frisking young men on street corners.
How then does he explain New York? The biggest city in America phased out most police street stops beginning in 2011 — and violent crime, already on the decline, just kept falling.
In an open letter released on Monday, Fardon actually blames pretty much everybody, except himself and the office he ran, for Chicago’s violent crime rate, and he singles out for disdain the “contact card” police officers must fill out whenever they question or search somebody.
Contact cards were introduced in August, 2015, as part of an agreement between the Chicago Police Department and the ACLU, and the number of street stops since then has plummeted — from more than 60,000 a month to about 10,000. In that same time, homicide and shooting rates have soared.
“By January of 2016, the city was on fire,” Fardon writes. “We had no police superintendent. Cops were under scrutiny. Cops had to worry about the ACLU deal. And many of them just no longer wanted to wear the risk of stopping suspects. Many became scared and demoralized.”
But it’s worth remembering why those contact cards now are required. Prior to the cards’ use, officers made far too many street stops, not too few, often without constitutional justification, rousting and searching people — usually minorities — at will. As the ACLU noted in a rebuttal to Fardon on Tuesday, the Chicago police conducted more than 700,000 street stops in 2014, not one of which yielded a gun or resulted in an arrest.
More to the point, there’s a good argument that the core of effective police work is the quality of police contacts, not the quantity. Unjustified street stops, by treating innocent people like suspects, can work against crime-fighting by alienating whole communities.
Consider the example of New York, where the police slashed the number of street stops by 97 percent between 2011 and 2015. “Homicides over this period did not increase at all,” according to a study by University of Chicago Crime Lab, “and in fact continued their long-term decline.”
Let’s be clear what that means: New York, with almost three times Chicago’s population, experienced fewer than half as many homicides in 2016, though New York all but ended the practice of stop-and-frisk. Yet Chicago’s cops say those contact cards tie their hands. Are New York cops really that much better?
It probably helped in New York that street stops there were phased out over several years, while Chicago effectively clamped down all at once. Police in New York were given more time to develop alternative policing practices, and to buy into the whole idea.
In general, Fardon writes, many Chicago police officers have become “scared and demoralized” in the aftermath of the scandal of the police shooting of 17-year-0ld Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014. City Hall, the U.S. Justice Department and the media since then have called for fundamental reforms in the training, policing practices, supervision — and the very culture — of the police department.
We would agree with that, of course. It is obvious, if regrettable, that rank-and-file officers feel under siege. But we would argue that it is this overall sense of demoralization, not the need to fill out contact cards and justify stop-and-frisks, that is hampering good police work. The contact cards are a symbol, not a legitimate cause, of the officers’ grievances.
The best course of action now would be for City Hall to work with the Justice Department, as Fardon also writes, to hammer out a legally binding consent decree that ensures reform of the police department — and get on with it. If the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no interest, then City Hall should go it alone on police reform — and get on with it. CPD finds itself caught in an ineffectual limbo, the extralegal ways of the past no longer tolerated but the rules going forward still undelineated.
At the federal level, our hope is that the Trump administration appoints a superb new U.S. attorney in Chicago who, more so than Fardon did, makes combating Chicago’s violence his or her first priority.
Fardon had notable successes in this area, most significantly gaining convictions of the leaders of the Hobos “super gang.” But if President Trump really wants to help Chicago, as he says he does, he will beef up the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago and put in charge an anti-gun and anti-gang warrior.
With a return to aggressive local policing, respectful of civil liberties, and a committed federal partner, Chicago can shut off this faucet of blood.
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