Civic Committee aims to tackle crime from a new perspective

The Civic Committee has evolved from a standard business group issuing standard business demands to taking a much more nuanced, holistic approach to solving very difficult, perhaps intractable problems like crime.

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Columnist Rich Miller writes the Civic Committee has evolved on tackling problems like crime, and that’s an encouraging sign.

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As I told you last week, the staid and conservative Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago’s latest and more liberal ideas on taxes and crime reduction have caused some folks to sit up and take notice, including Illinois Senate President Don Harmon.

“I think that the Civic Committee is approaching major problems with a very different perspective,” Harmon said.

Harmon suggested the business group’s recently hired president, Derek Douglas, as a possible reason for the change. Douglas is an African American who worked for the Obama administration as special assistant to the president for urban affairs and then at the University of Chicago as vice president for civic engagement and external affairs.

Harmon also seemed impressed with how the Civic Committee was willing to put itself in the firing line, particularly on the crime issue and its insistence that Chicago must institute police reforms.

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Crain’s Chicago Business and others have whacked the influential group’s crime plan, which relies primarily on violence prevention, targeted investment and hiring, because it didn’t specifically call for hiring more police officers. The group wants to reduce Chicago’s homicide numbers below 400 a year within five years. Last year, 695 homicide victims were tallied by the Chicago Police Department.

A recent Crain’s editorial ended by saying if the Civic Committee “is going to issue a business-minded prescription on issues of law enforcement and reform — and if it is to truly reflect the sentiments not only of downtown businesspeople but their counterparts in neighborhoods hit hardest by violence — then it should also call for a fully staffed police force.”

The Civic Committee’s most prominent member supporting its crime-reduction plan is billionaire James Crown, and he told me he didn’t see the editorializing as “hostility.”

Instead, Crown said, it’s “something we have seen along the way, which is people have got in their heads that ‘this is the problem’ or ‘this is what we need.’ And it’s usually a very short phrase or answer. ‘The problem is guns.’ ‘The problem is jobs.’ ‘The problem is the schools.’

“The frustration we have had in those conversations is they’re right, but it’s not the whole answer. It requires many elements, many factors, some of which are immediate, some of which will take years before we have really addressed this problem satisfactorily.”

As far as the specific criticism about additional police hiring, Crown said, “There are people who will look at the understaffing of the police department relative to open positions or history and say that is a problem. And it might well be, and we’re very supportive of the police department and want effective policing, and we may well join in the observation that Crain’s has been promoting. But there also is evidence that police departments with many fewer officers per 100,000 residents are very successful. Why?”

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Good question.

The Civic Committee’s president was also asked about Crain’s editorial and related attacks on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program: “We were a little disappointed to see that, because the suggestion was as if we were against adding police or increasing police, which we never said.

“What we said was the approach we want to take is to sit down with the leadership of CPD, sit down with the city, understand what is their strategy, what are their needs, how much do they want to grow and get behind that.

“So as opposed to us dictating, ‘You need to do X, Y and Z,’ it was more of a collaborative approach to hear from the police themselves, ‘Here’s what we’d like to have, we’d like to add more of this, we’d like to add more of that,’ and then have the business community find ways to support it. So, it’s just about the way you come at the issue.”

Even with the somewhat conciliatory approach, it’s clear things have changed.

Harmon is right. The Civic Committee has evolved from a standard businessperson group issuing standard businessperson demands that echoed standard pro-business publications, editorial pages and pundits, to taking a much more nuanced, holistic approach to actually solving very difficult, perhaps intractable problems.

Douglas, I think, said it best when he talked about a “collaborative approach” that focused on listening. There are way too many unilateral screamers on the crime issue in particular, and far too few people who want to take the time to listen, learn and collaboratively find a path forward.

While I don’t know how long this approach will last (the Civic Committee’s membership being what it is), I wish them luck.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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