Commentary Magazine


Policing Succeeds Where Gun Control Fails

When it comes to preventing gun violence, there are two avenues to pursue: target legal gun owners or the criminals those gun owners are trying to protect their families from. In January, NPR ran a program segment that perfectly captured this dichotomy, titled “Chicago’s Gun Ban Fails To Prevent Murders,” about the Windy City’s skyrocketing violence. In its description of the segment, NPR included this: “We discussed police focus on ‘hot spots,’ and the dissolution of gangs. But listeners asked: What about gun bans?”

The title of the program gives it away, but restrictions on gun ownership–of which Chicago had some of the toughest–failed utterly to stop the bleeding. But what about the other side of that coin? What if, in other words, rather than targeting legal gun owners interested in protecting themselves, the city attempted to fulfill its responsibility to protect them? What if, instead of succumbing to the inevitability of murder in certain city neighborhoods and thus following the inexcusable liberal tendency to concretize urban inequality, the city aimed to restore the dignity of American life to every street corner of Chicago?

“I said the most fundamental of civil rights is the guarantee that government can give you a reasonable degree of safety,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once said in a speech looking back on the police reform he instituted that saved a city. “The fact is that all the civil rights that we posses–the right to travel, interstate commerce, the right to a public education–all of those rights are essentially meaningless if you are afraid to exercise those rights.”

That gives you an idea of what it has been like in some parts of Chicago, where parents are afraid to let their children go outside to play or are concerned there is literally no safe route for their children to take to get to school. Wealthier neighborhoods don’t have the same worries, so Chicago is effectively two cities: one to which the city is able to provide the dignity of life in the free world, and one in which that city provision is an absent luxury. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t: legal handguns are not the cause of this.

What Giuliani did was to revamp the city’s police force through the use of the data-driven CompStat system and by reorienting itself toward preventing, instead of simply solving, violent crimes. Giuliani gave poorer neighborhoods back their dignity, and now, reports the New York Times, that attitude is being imported with success to Chicago by a desperate Mayor Rahm Emanuel:

So far in 2013, Chicago homicides, which outnumbered slayings in the larger cities of New York and Los Angeles last year, are down 34 percent from the same period in 2012. As of Sunday night, 146 people had been killed in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city — 76 fewer than in the same stretch in 2012 and 16 fewer than in 2011, a year that was among the lowest for homicides during the same period in 50 years.

In recent months, as many as 400 officers a day, working overtime, have been dispatched to just 20 small zones deemed the city’s most dangerous. The police say they are tamping down retaliatory shootings between gang factions by using a comprehensive analysis of the city’s tens of thousands of suspected gang members, the turf they claim and their rivalries. The police also are focusing on more than 400 people they have identified as having associations that make them the most likely to be involved in a murder, as a victim or an offender.

And where did this policing transformation come from? As Time magazine noted in its cover story on Emanuel’s mayoralty:

On taking office, Emanuel moved quickly to hire a new superintendent of police. He picked Newark, N.J., police commissioner Garry McCarthy, a Bronx-born veteran of the New York City police and a disciple of the law-enforcement guru William Bratton. As the officer in charge of New York’s CompStat system of data-driven policing for seven years, McCarthy was revolutionary to the core, but with the streetwise demeanor of a beat cop.

Emanuel imported the training, strategy, and even attitude that worked to such effect in New York. Emanuel doesn’t like to highlight the fact that what works contradicts his typically obnoxious grandstanding on gun bans and his support for the very gun restrictions that failed so miserably in his own city. But it’s a start.

It’s also important to note that the jury is still out on whether Chicago can maintain these positive trends. The increased police patrols are expensive–the Times says the city is already closing in on its annual budget outlays for police overtime. Some worry that the bad weather has kept people off the streets and that upon their return crime will join them. Others object that last year’s crime numbers were too high to use as a fair baseline for comparison.

Additionally, the city still needs expanded emergency medical care facilities in areas close enough to violent neighborhoods to save lives. But the numbers don’t lie: there is a notable improvement that can’t be explained away by the weather. (It rained last year too.) And the fact that the program is still in its early stages is reason to be optimistic about further improvement. And there’s another metric: Emanuel was approached by a mother who said she was beginning to feel comfortable letting her child walk to school. Emanuel told the Times: “That to me is the biggest, most important, most significant measure — that a mother feels comfortable and confident enough where she didn’t in past years to have her child walk to school.”

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