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Who deserves credit for Chicago’s violent crime decrease?

Before all others, we would say former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Police Supt. Eddie Johnson
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Police Supt. Eddie Johnson
Nader Issa/Sun-Times file photo

Violent crime is down in Chicago, and the cops are solving more murders.

Who deserves credit at City Hall?

Before all others, we would say former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has been in office six months, has jumped hard on the problem of violent crime in Chicago. If crime rates continue their decline over the next few years, she and her administration will deserve much of the credit.

But Chicago’s decline in violent crime in 2019 — as reported this week in multiple news stories and in an essay co-authored by Lightfoot — continues a trend that began under a different mayor and superintendent.

No mention by name

We feel the need to note this because the Lightfoot administration has not. Certainly not in any significant way. You won’t find a mention of Emanuel or Johnson in Lightfoot’s op-ed, which she co-authored with Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck and First Deputy Supt. Anthony J. Riccio.

It’s important to assign full and fair credit not for the sake of anybody’s ego, but so as to acknowledge and build on solutions that work.

Part of the explanation for a four-year decline in murders in Chicago, for example, could well be Emanuel’s decision to increase the number of detectives, from 969 in 2016 to about 1,180 in 2019. Part of the explanation might also be the creation of data centers throughout the city — an idea Johnson borrowed from Los Angeles — that now feed real-time crime information to officers on smartphones.

All those new detectives also probably go a long way toward explaining why the police are solving more crimes. As Frank Main of the Sun-Times reported Wednesday, the Chicago Police Department’s murder clearance rate last year was about 53%, which is nothing to brag about, but a considerable improvement over the 29% in 2016.

Our impression is that Lightfoot is well aware of what Emanuel and Johnson got right and is trying to accelerate those efforts, even as she launches initiatives of her own. All for the good.

To further pump up detective work, she and Beck are increasing the number of detective offices throughout the city from three to five, reopening two offices closed by Emanuel.

To further reshape the police department in ways that build community trust — as part of a court-monitored consent decree signed by Emanuel — she hired Beck as acting supe. As chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Beck successfully led that police force through its own consent decree.

Giving greater due

It’s not like Chicago mayors to shower praise upon their predecessors. The usual way is to put a big space between yourself and the previous mayor while grabbing all the credit you can for every good piece of news, even if you just walked in the door.

But, to our thinking, it just doesn’t feel like fair play to not give Johnson greater due.

Emanuel appointed Johnson superintendent in early 2016, a time when the Chicago Police Department’s relationship with many Chicagoans, particularly in predominantly African American neighborhoods, could not be more tense. Murder numbers were up and the Justice Department was investigating CPD’s professional practices after the killing of Laquan McDonald by since-imprisoned Officer Jason Van Dyke.

During Johnson’s time at the top, violent crime rates fell, clearance rates increased, CPD committed to the reforms of the consent decree and, perhaps most importantly, community relations improved.

Early last month, things fell apart for Johnson. Lightfoot fired him, saying he had lied to her about an incident one night when he reportedly was found slumped over the wheel of his car. His benign explanation — that his behavior was the result of a change in medication — didn’t square with what the mayor later was told. At the very least, we now know, Johnson was out drinking heavily that night with other cops.

We’re reluctant to say much more, for now, about what happened that night; the city’s inspector general is looking into the matter.

But however that shakes out, there’s no getting around the fact that Johnson was superintendent during four years of gains — however incremental — by the police department.

Johnson and the guy who hired him left Lightfoot with something to build on.

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