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Editorial: Closing the door on a deadly year in Chicago

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Murder in Chicago exploded in 2016, while arrests by the police plummeted.

A growing narrative, picked up by the national news media, is that one explains the other, that Chicago’s horrific homicide rate is largely the result of a beleaguered police force sitting on their hands, afraid to work the streets aggressively for fear of being accused of going too far.

To our thinking, that’s likely partly true and completely unacceptable.


Without a doubt there was a greater public focus in 2016 on holding to account police officers who threw professionalism to wind and crossed ethical lines. That was bound to happen after a year, 2015, in which an incendiary video was released that showed a young man who was of no immediate threat to anybody, Laquan McDonald, being shot 16 times by a police officer — while other officers mentally began concocting false witness statements to cover for the shooter.

But the notion that Chicago cops are handcuffed from doing aggressive and effective police work because they must follow the rule book or risk punishment is offensive. It is an insult to every good cop.

Earlier this week, former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy complained to the New York Daily News that as a result of the McDonald scandal, Chicago has “completely flipped the script where we investigate police and not criminals.” But McCarthy’s got it wrong. Nobody in Chicago, least of all the residents of the most dangerous neighborhoods, wants to see the police ease up on fighting crime. They just want the cops to do so without rolling over civil liberties. They want more probable cause and less racial profiling.

Similarly, a retired Chicago police officer interviewed by the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” in an episode to air Sunday evening, contends morale is so low that officers do little more than sit and wait to respond to 911 calls.

If so, that cannot be allowed to continue. Supt. Eddie Johnson’s responsibility, through his commanders, is to order every aggrieved cop to quit sulking. Get out and do the job, by the book and with pride, or find another line of work.

Chicago has recorded more than 783 murders in 2016, an astounding increase from 487 murders in 2015. Some of that increase no doubt can be blamed on Police Department understaffing, meaning Mayor Rahm Emanuel can’t make good fast enough on his pledge to hire 970 additional police officers, over and above attrition. But to what extent the high murder rate also can be blamed on fewer arrests is harder to say.

Police arrests this year are down 28 percent from the year before, on target to be the lowest number of arrests since at least 2001, according to a Sun-Times analysis. At the same time, however, the number of illegal guns seized by the police increased, which gives credence to the ACLU’s argument that the police are not working less aggressively, just smarter. Johnson contends the drop in arrests is due to a shift in emphasis toward combating the most serious crimes, especially those involving guns, and improving community relations.

What’s clear is that nothing is working, at least not yet. One person is shot in Chicago about every two hours. Two or more people are killed every day. Curbing deadly gun violence must remain the single biggest priority for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Supt. Johnson and all Chicagoans in the new year.

Better police work alone is not the solution. Everybody knows that. Also needed are better schools, better parents, more and better jobs, and more neighborhood social services, such as mental health counseling and daycare. Perhaps above all, Chicago needs a new spirit of hope, a sense that what’s best about the city does not begin and end with the razzle dazzle of Downtown and certain privileged neighborhoods. City leaders must take Chicago in that direction, not just talk about it.

But in the here and now — to curb the carnage today — it is hard to overstate the importance of better gun laws and a powerful and professional police force. We strongly support new state laws to get and keep illegal guns off the street. Most significantly, we support legislation pending in Springfield that would increase minimum prison sentences for gun crimes. Illegal guns are killing our city.

And we support good police work — effective, by-the-book police work.

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