But unlike Baltimore, Chicago saw its homicide tally retreat after the spike, with three straight years of declines, down to 482 last year—still one of the highest rates in the country, but 35 percent lower than in 2016. And the declines were happening as the city was entering into its own federal consent decree stemming from McDonald’s killing.
The city’s current deputy mayor for public safety, Susan Lee, says the improved trajectory could be attributed partly to Eddie Johnson, the police superintendent installed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in April 2016. Johnson grew up in one of the city’s most notorious housing projects and had sufficient credibility with many officers to rally them back to the job at hand. (He was fired late last year after officers found him sleeping in his car after drinking.)
Additionally, a coalition of several dozen local organizations and foundations made a unified investment in violence reduction. “The horrendous spike in murders brought a citywide response that was about embracing [the police department] but also about the community stepping up and saying, ‘We need to do more,’” Lee told me.
This success story had a disheartening coda, though. Amid this year’s nationwide rise in violence, Chicago is now experiencing one of the worst increases of all, putting it on pace to near its 2016 total, alongside several high-profile episodes of looting downtown.
Lee cautioned against seeing all apparent police withdrawals through the lens of rank-and-file resentment. In some cases, she said, officers are still operating under the limits imposed by COVID-19 concerns, or are simply weary from protest details, which, along with coronavirus quarantines, have been pulling many of them from their beat. “We’ve had a transition from the closures to reopening ramping up, and there’s a level of uncertainty from that. They’re working 12-hour days for multiple days. There’s a sheer exhaustion factor. All of that would translate into folks saying, ‘Officers are not working as hard.’” The key to making sure that officers were not edging into a more deliberate withdrawal, Lee said, lay with command staff. “It all goes back to supervision and whether those frontline supervisors are holding people accountable for their work product.”
Back in Baltimore, the next person to face the threat of police pulling back from the job they are paid to do is likely going to be Brandon Scott, the 36-year-old city-council president who narrowly won the recent Democratic mayoral primary and is thus nearly guaranteed to win the November general election. Scott, who grew up in one of the city’s most homicide-plagued neighborhoods, watched from his perch as chairman of the council’s public-safety committee as the recent pullback occurred and violence filled the void. He told me that he was confident that he would be able to address the threat of withdrawal, should it arise again, partly because of the personal ties he’s built over the years with many in the department. “Leaders lead,” he said. “You have to have leaders that are able to communicate to multiple groups of people, who have relationships with different groups of people. It doesn’t mean they’ll always be happy with everything you do, but they’ll appreciate that you did it in a thoughtful way.”
And what if officers in Baltimore, or elsewhere, still hold back? “Most of these places have failure-to-obey-lawful-duty provisions, and they should follow them,” Scott said. “You signed up to protect people.”