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Time for Chicago to reimagine its approach to public safety and policing

It’s counter-intuitive to propose reducing the number of police officers when gun violence is surging, but the police mostly react to shootings after the fact. Our goal is to prevent gun violence.

Chicago Police officers investigate a crime scene on South Cregier Avenue on Sept. 7.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Do you know that Chicago has almost twice as many police officers as Los Angeles on a per capita basis, yet we have three times as much gun violence?

Do you know that, according to national studies, most police spend just five percent of their time on violent crime?

Gun violence is surging in Chicago, despite the fact that we have more police than ever and spend about $140 million annually on overtime. The police worked extended shifts for most of the summer and even vacations were cancelled. No wonder officers report being demoralized.

Meanwhile, violence prevention organizations such as READI Chicago, Communities Partnering 4 Peace and Chicago CRED are working in the most violent neighborhoods of Chicago to recruit men and women at risk for violence, mediate disputes and negotiate peace treaties and non-aggression agreements among street organizations. It’s hard, dangerous work, but it’s making a difference.

Roseland is one of 15 communities where CRED has heavily invested in street outreach, life coaches, counseling, education and job training. We’ve served more than 300 young men and a handful of women and given them a path out of street life and into the legal economy.

Our approach doesn’t work perfectly, and it doesn’t work everywhere. But today, while homicides are up about 50% citywide, they are down 33% in Roseland. Non-fatal shootings are also up around 50% citywide but up just 3% in Roseland. This is as of Sept. 16, according to a City of Chicago website.

Chicago can make the same investment in every community plagued by gun violence if the city begins to reimagine what we mean by “public safety.” Instead of armed police officers responding to everything from noise complaints to mental health incidents to school disciplinary incidents, we can ask community partners and non-police professionals to respond. Police can be available for back-up if incidents are more dangerous, but the vast majority of police calls are not.

At the same time, we can free up police to focus much more on violent crime. Today, our murder clearance rate is well below the national average and far below other big cities like New York and Los Angeles. In 2018, for example, Chicago’s homicide clearance rate was around 45% while New York and Los Angeles were up around 80%.

The focus on violence prevention, counseling, life coaching, education and employment essentially adds up to a “public health” approach to fighting gun violence. Organizations like READI and CP4P and CRED are helping communities suffering from violence, low employment, poor housing and health outcomes heal by engaging the young men most at risk of shooting or being shot and giving the support they need to change.

Compared to policing, violence prevention is a bargain. CRED is spending roughly $10 million per year in Roseland, mostly through private funders. If Chicago took the same approach in its 15 most violent neighborhoods, the cost would be roughly $150 million dollars — a pittance compared to the billions of dollars taxpayers spend in the criminal justice system today.

Chicago’s 2020 police budget is $1.65 billion dollars. By our estimate, taxpayers are spending more than twice that amount each year just on gun violence when you factor in policing, prosecution, prisons and the health care costs for thousands of non-fatal shooting victims.

Chicago currently has a police force of 13,000. We also have nearly 850 vacancies in the police department right now. If we left 500 positions empty in 2021, we could redirect roughly $100 million into outreach and alternative response programs.

If the city did that five years in a row, we could reinvest hundreds of millions of dollars each year to reduce violence, and we would still have more than 10,000 police in Chicago, which is more than Los Angeles, a city with a much bigger population.

To be absolutely clear, I am not proposing police layoffs. I am talking only about using attrition — which is the number of people retiring from the police department each year — to shrink the department and redirect resources. And I am wide open to other funding sources. But if we really want to reduce violence, we have to invest. The status quo simply isn’t working.

I know that it’s counter-intuitive to propose reducing the number of police when gun violence is surging, but the truth is, police mostly react to shootings after the fact. The goal of our organizations is to prevent gun violence, and the only way to do that is to deal directly with the people involved with trust, relationships, credibility and specialized training to settle grievances and provide a space for healing. That’s a core function of street outreach.

As Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck said last January in a City Club speech, the police department’s job is “the last homicide,” while the job of outreach workers is to stop “the next homicide.”

Chicago cannot keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We have not had under 400 murders in a year since 1965. It’s time to do things differently and take these violence prevention programs to scale.

Arne Duncan, a former U.S. secretary of education, is a managing partner of Emerson Collective and the founder of Chicago CRED.

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