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Lightfoot’s crime speech: Sound and fury, but now what?

Instead of being a defining moment that could convince the public that her administration can get its arms around this thing, the mayor’s speech was largely what we’ve already heard before.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke Monday at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s crime speech this week was largely a disappointment.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

We have to give Mayor Lori Lightfoot some credit for standing before a mic earlier this week and delivering a speech about what’s on every Chicagoan’s mind these days: crime.

If nothing else, it’s an admission that her administration has to take full ownership over this issue right now, as the city this year logs in its highest homicide total in 30 years and North Michigan Avenue merchants are seemingly on the verge of revolt over crime, theft and break-ins on the city’s premier retail street.

But instead of being a defining moment that could convince the public that her administration can get its arms around this thing, the mayor’s speech was largely what Chicagoans have heard before: promises to staff up the detective division of the Chicago Police Department; a recitation of the city’s existing violence prevention social programs, and a pledge to use controversial asset forfeiture laws to crack down on gang leaders.

Even her move to ask U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to send federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to Chicago to help stem the flow of illegal guns here was a rehash. Just five months ago, the ATF announced it set up a new gun trafficking strike force, charged with the duties Lightfoot now calls for.

And the ATF already has had a field office here for almost a century, dating back to when the agency was the IRS’ Bureau of Prohibition led by Eliot Ness, chasing down Al Capone and bootleggers in the 1920s.

Deja vu on bail controversy

Lightfoot also said the city’s rise in crime is linked to a “fundamentally broken” electronic monitoring system for accused violent offenders who are out on bail awaiting trial.

But not only does Lightfoot — once again — cite no figures proving the alleged connection, she also doubles down hard, calling for an immediate moratorium on electronic monitoring for those charged with murder, attempted murder, aggravated gun possession, sex crimes, kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, carjacking and other crimes.

The proposal seems a wild punch thrown in hopes of a scoring a knock-out. And in a Sun-Times op-ed, Northwestern University legal expert Stephanie Kollmann points out that the move would, in fact, violate both the Illinois and U.S. constitutions.

“We the people have the right to pretrial release and there are no charges — not even murder — for which a judge may categorically deny us bail,” Kollmann wrote. “For serious felony charges, a judge must instead make an individualized determination of whether a person accused poses a ‘real and present’ threat to safety. Even for the highest possible crimes, the judge must take the weight of evidence against a person into account.”

That Lightfoot didn’t take any questions after the speech is telling. We wonder if the mayor or her handlers were concerned that scrutiny would reveal very little was there, and that the electronic monitoring moratorium is not really likely to happen at all.

There is no doubt that curbing crime is a complex, difficult task. We don’t expect the mayor, or even experts, to present the public with a magic bullet. Ending violence will involve addressing the societal roots — unaddressed for decades — that create crime, as well as the shortcomings of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in dealing equitably and effectively with crimes once they occur. So the blame for Chicago’s crime problems doesn’t fall solely on Lightfoot’s doorstep.

Even so, the mayor is responsible for determining a sensible, fair and effective pathway out of the problem, and for rallying city leaders and state and federal partners — we wish some of them had been at the podium for Lightfoot’s speech — around proven solutions.

What happened with this week’s speech was something other than that. Lightfoot can do better — and she will have to, for the sake of the city’s future.

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