No one has all the answers to Chicago’s crime problem

Over many years of writing, reporting, editing and researching stories about urban crime, some of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve had about drug abuse, drug dealing and violent crime weren’t with police officers, elected officials or academics.

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Chicago police investigating at the scene in South Shore where five people were shot, two of them fatally, in an apartment in the 7800 block of South Exchange Avenue on Jan. 23, 2023.

Chicago police investigating at the scene in South Shore where five people were shot, two of them fatally, in an apartment in the 7800 block of South Exchange Avenue on Jan. 23, 2023.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Once again, Chicago has witnessed a mayoral election season of charismatic characters, heated dialogue, racial undertones and the city’s unique brand of rough-and-tumble politics.

But this time, more than anything or anyone, crime was front and center.

Discussions of burglaries, thefts, robberies, carjackings, shootings and murders dominated political debates, barber shop talk and social media chatter these past several months. And our focus on crime will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Data tells us that we experience crime in different ways. And the mayoral runoff election results perhaps show that we also differ in our thinking about the best way for the city to address crime. But there’s no question that we are all affected — and the impact is mighty.

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And when it comes to tackling our collective dilemma, there’s also no question about where our thinking should start.

We don’t have all the answers. Not even close.

None of us know the magic formula to rid ourselves of crime … not Brandon Johnson, not Paul Vallas.

Not those of us who want more police officers or more aggressive police tactics.

Not those of us calling for more programs to address social ills that we think are “root causes” of crime.

But the solutions don’t have to be — shouldn’t be — mutually exclusive.

Why crime happens

For sure, we should reconsider how we spend our resources to improve public safety, and police shouldn’t be the only bucket where we direct those resources.

But it’s hard for me to imagine a world without police. Crime happens, and we need a capable, healthy, professional and well-trained body of civil servants to respond. They are the first line of defense in our effort to pursue justice — something that we all want.

But police and the rest of the criminal justice system represent only half of the equation.

We also need to understand why crime happens so we can prevent it, which is the other half of the equation. And we have a long way to go on that half.

Over many years of writing, reporting, editing and researching stories about urban crime, some of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve had about drug abuse, drug dealing and violent crime weren’t with police officers, elected officials or academics. Those conversations were with people who had actually abused drugs, sold drugs and committed acts of violence.

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They talked about the horrific acts, but they also talked about the limited options in life they felt were available to them and the calculated decisions they made in response. Many also spoke of how their options were diminished even more after returning home from prison, which helps to explain the staggering rate of recidivism in our state and nation.

Economic pressures have often been linked to crime. It should be no surprise to us that our most recent spikes occurred during a global pandemic that universally shook up our markets, our businesses and our personal finances.

There’s also the ever-present specter of inequality. Racial disparities in incarceration in Illinois are even higher than they are in southern states known for their painful legacy of discrimination. Racial unemployment gaps are also wider in the Chicago area than they are in most large metropolitan areas across the country.

As we continue our journey as a city to address our long-standing and well-documented public safety concerns, my hope is that we’ll stop talking at each other about our beliefs on the best crime-fighting approaches.

It will take time to get to the true solution, and progress will come slowly. It’s not likely that we’ll see meaningful movement and a really significant decline in crime in the span of one administration. It could even take a generation.

Our city will only get there if we acknowledge that we don’t fully understand the lives, circumstances and rationale of the people who commit crimes.

If we can all agree that we don’t fully know the answer to the crime problem, then maybe we can also agree to listen more intently and to learn from the lessons that others have to share.

Both Johnson and Vallas spoke about bringing the city together. Perhaps in our search for an effective approach to address crime and violence, we can begin to get there, together.

Alden Loury is data projects editor for WBEZ and writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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