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Across the United States, cities are experiencing turbulence and a rise in gun violence following the protests of abusive policing sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. More than 110 people were shot in that city in the month following Floyd’s death, eight fatally. In Atlanta, 106 people were shot over a 28-day period ending July 11, up from 40 over the same period last year.
This isn’t the first time in recent years that America has seen such protests followed by a spike in violence. In the spring of 2015, the death of Freddie Gray, 25, from injuries sustained in police custody brought demonstrators into the streets of Baltimore. The protests flared into rioting and looting. Soon afterward, the city’s chief prosecutor announced criminal charges against the officers involved in the arrest. The officers’ colleagues responded by pulling back on the job, doing only the bare minimum in the following weeks. In the resulting void, crews seized new drug corners and settled old scores. Homicides surged to record levels and case-closure rates plunged. “The police stopped doing their jobs, and let people fuck up other people,” Carl Stokes, a former Democratic city councilor in Baltimore, told me last year. “Period. End of story.”
The protests of recent months, which reignited again in August following the shooting of a man by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as he leaned into his vehicle, have created real momentum for efforts to reform police departments. In many cities, though, rank-and-file police officers are greeting these efforts with an apparent pullback. They say they are aggrieved by the charges against their fellow officers, public criticism of their department as a whole or growing calls to greatly reduce their powers and resources. In several cities, rising violence is already undermining support for shifting resources out of police departments, including among many Black residents and elected leaders. If reformers hope to succeed in curbing overpolicing, they will first have to overcome the challenge of underpolicing, which has often allowed officers to exercise an effective veto on reform.
Michael McGinn dealt with a police pullback when he was mayor of Seattle in 2012. And, he told me, the problem has a straightforward solution: A mayor facing a police pullback has to make it plain that officers are accountable to the elected government they serve. That starts, he said, with relatively small steps, such as demanding that officers uncover their badge numbers. And if officers refuse? “Anyone who doesn’t follow an order gets sent home. That’s what you do with someone who doesn’t follow orders in a semi-military organization. You fire them.”
In Minneapolis, where the City Council approved legislation that would put up for referendum the wholesale replacement of the Police Department, residents have reported a notable decrease in police presence. “All you see now is them with their windows up,” one told The Washington Post. In Atlanta, many officers started calling in sick in reaction to the 11 charges, including felony murder, filed against Garrett Rolfe on June 17. The former Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, who had been found asleep in his car in a drive-thru, following a tussle with Rolfe and his partner after he failed a sobriety test. Brooks ran from Rolfe and his partner and fired a Taser that he had wrestled from the partner.
The interim police chief, Rodney Bryant, was left to plead with the officers on his force to do their job. “I implore you to channel your concerns for your fellow officers by having their back. At this moment, I implore you to remember why you became a police officer. We did not choose this line of work because it was easy,” he said. “We became officers because we wanted to help people in distress, make a difference in our communities and simply serve and protect.
Bryant’s appeal echoed the plea made to Baltimore officers in the spring of 2015 by Anthony Batts, then the city’s police commissioner, as homicides soared following Gray’s death. “I talked to them again about character and what character means,” Batts told me and other reporters. “I’m sharing with them what it is to put that holster on every day, to put that badge on every day, to put that uniform on every day: the character that it takes, the responsibility that comes with that, and our responsibility to this community and to the 9-year-old little boys who are playing in the middle of the street that get shot. (Batts was replaced as commissioner a few weeks later.)
It is too early to say whether the Atlanta and Minneapolis officers’ pullback will result in a continuing surge of violent crime. In the case of Baltimore, as a ProPublica investigation explored in detail last year, a police pullback appeared to be an instigating element that combined with other problems to create a breakdown of civil order in the city. The rise of violence there has yet to abate, five years later, and has resulted in more than 500 deaths over and above the average homicide toll of the decade prior to 2015.
Rises and falls in crime rates are notoriously hard to explain definitively. Scholars still don’t agree on the causes of a decadeslong nationwide decline in crime. Still, some academics who have studied the phenomenon in recent years see evidence that rising rates of violence in cities that have experienced high-profile incidents of police brutality are driven by police pullbacks. Many criminologists also cite the general deterioration of trust between the community and police, which leaves residents less likely to report crimes, call in tips or testify in court. Added to that are the dynamics that are now likely also driving a rise in violent crime, even in cities that have not witnessed recent high-profile deaths at police hands: the economic and social stresses of the pandemic lockdowns, including disruptions to illegal drug markets, and the usual seasonal rise in violence during summer.
Lawrence Grandpre, the research director with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore activist organization, cautions against overstating the role of underpolicing in the rise in violence. He argues that some of the cities where police are coming under scrutiny are also ones where Black residents have been struggling the most with long-standing inequities that could fuel disorder in this time of protest and pandemic-induced stress. “The dynamics that drive violent crime are intra-community dynamics,” he told me. “It’s the accumulation of historical trauma in communities. Look to the social and economic disruption of COVID and the sense of hopelessness and desperation that falls on these communities that feel that nothing is working. … When you’re under stress and feel hopeless, it’s more likely that these conflicts spiral into violence.”
Alongside such local dynamics, though, the shared recent experience of cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta, and Minneapolis points to one of the biggest challenges facing municipal leaders who are trying to hold police officers accountable for possible abuses of power and reform their police departments as a whole: the prospect that officers will pull back, staging a silent strike that, at best, leaves the city unable to contend with a spike in violence or, at worst, helps give rise to one.
The problem is not new, but the politics surrounding it have suddenly changed. For decades, it was political death to run afoul of the police and their powerful unions. Now the electorates of many cities have shifted further left and grown more vociferous about demanding police reform and even defunding departments, which puts more pressure on elected leaders to take a tougher stand against their departments than they might have in years past.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announcing a curfew on May 30 as protests continued over the death of George Floyd.
Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
That means big-city mayors including Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, New York’s Bill de Blasio and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot face a daunting challenge. They have to navigate two problems at the same time: reining in overpolicing while also preventing underpolicing, the consequences of which are every bit as dire. And a great many lives are riding on how well they pull that off.
“The real issue,” McGinn told me, “is what actions will mayors take to reassert control over the police department? Can a mayor admit they don’t have control and take more firm action to gain control? That’s a big bridge for a mayor to cross. But if you don’t cross that bridge, then you have the situation we have across America.
In Atlanta, the police union has responded to the pressure for accountability and reform by blaming its critics. “Officers are fed up. They’ve been treated like crap both by their fellow citizens and their own legislators,” said Vince Champion, the southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which represents most Atlanta officers. “You can’t have it both ways — call us and we come to do our job, but then if our job gets ugly, we’re the bad guys.”
Some of the activists seeking to defund or limit policing might welcome this line of argument — see how you like life without us. But many other activists battling against abuses say they recognize the need for policing, done properly, and they worry about what will happen if police respond to calls for reform by pulling back. “A lot of the onus for the violence falls right at the feet of law enforcement,” Gerald Griggs, the first vice president of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch, told the Post. “There are certain elements in our community that don’t take a break when the police take a break. You’re sworn to protect and defend, but when there are a few rogue [police] being held accountable you decide to shirk your responsibility?”
As mayor of Seattle, McGinn inherited policing trouble: He was tasked with negotiating a consent decree in 2012 with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul the city’s Police Department following several incidents of police force against minority residents, including the fatal shooting of a Native woodcarver and an officer punching a 17-year-old Black girl in the face. The federal government has imposed more than 40 such decrees or other forms of settlement, and conducted about 30 investigations that did not result in decrees, since Congress gave it the authority to do so in 1994, after the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. And many of the decrees have been met with what experts call “de-policing” by officers upset about the scrutiny or worried about running afoul of new limits.
McGinn, a garrulous Democrat who was the Washington State chairman of the Sierra Club before running for office, said in an interview that he was getting reports at the time that officers were taking less initiative to act on possible offenses they witnessed on their rounds and settling more often for responding to calls that came in. But it was a subtle enough shift to escape much notice. “There were still police doing police things,” he said.
A former Seattle police officer who was on the force during the consent-decree period explained how this dynamic often played out. (Like the other officers quoted in this story, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because his current position does not authorize him to speak with the media.) Among the elements of the city’s consent decree was a broadened definition of “use of force,” which required reporting even an arrestee’s complaint that handcuffs had caused physical pain. The decree also put in place an early warning system for officers racking up use-of-force incidents at a high rate. Many officers concluded it wasn’t worth the hassle to arrest someone for relatively minor offenses, such as public disturbance or loitering, the former officer said.
“I made two arrests two days in a row one week, and both turned into paperwork clusterfucks,” the former officer said. “When you’ve accumulated two or three use-of-force complaints in a week, you’ll say: ‘I just need to stop. I need to stop doing this.’” Among the sort of policing that fell away, the former officer said, was officers’ routine sweeps of areas where drug users congregated, to check their names for outstanding warrants, which would often net suspects in local burglaries. Meanwhile, he said, several dozen of the department’s more proactive-minded officers responded to the new rules and paperwork by simply deciding to “lateral out” to a job in another police department.
And police officers opposed to the consent decree that McGinn negotiated didn’t just engage in underpolicing — they found an even more effective way to protest it: The union endorsed his opponent in the 2013 election, Ed Murray, and made a $15,000 campaign expenditure on his behalf. After Murray narrowly defeated McGinn, the new interim police chief he installed dismissed claims of misconduct against a group of officers. (Murray later resigned amid allegations of child sexual abuse. He denied the charges and was not prosecuted, though the city did settle at least one civil case filed by a man accusing Murray of abuse.)
In Seattle, the pullback correlated with a rise in street crimes and disorder. The city has relatively high rates of property crime, and it has become so well known for highly visible homelessness and drug use that a local TV station owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group aired an hourlong documentary last year called “Seattle Is Dying.”
But the post-consent-decree pullback did not result in a rise in violent crime in the city, whose homicide rate remained very low compared with other large cities. In this, the city is representative of a broader trend, according to two recent de-policing studies. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and Joel Wallman, the director of research for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, examined the impact of arrest rates in 53 large cities on homicide rates from 2010 to 2015. They found that arrests, especially for less serious crimes such as loitering, public intoxication, drug possession and vagrancy, had already been dropping over that period, even prior to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. And they found that in nearly all of those cities, the declining arrest rates did not result in higher rates of violence. To put it another way: Over the first half of the past decade, many cities shifted away from the “broken windows” style of policing popularized in New York under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but even as they did so, violent crime continued to decline in most places, as it has since the early 1990s.
Similarly, a June working paper by Roland Fryer, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Tanaya Devi found that in most cities where police have been under federal investigations in recent decades, a step that often leads to consent decrees, rates of violent crime have not increased — just as they didn’t in Seattle.
There was one set of exceptions in the latter study, though. Federal investigations and de-policing did correlate with a sharp rise in violent crime in cities that had experienced what the study referred to as “viral” incidents: a high-profile, highly controversial instance of police using deadly force against a civilian — precisely what several cities are contending with today.
In Baltimore in 2015, the underpolicing was so conspicuous that even some community activists who had long pushed for more restrained policing were left desperate as violence rose in their neighborhoods. “We saw a pullback in this community for over a month where it was up to the community to police the community. And quite frankly, we were outgunned,” the West Baltimore community organizer Ray Kelly told me in 2018. In fact, the violence got so out of hand — a 62% increase in homicides over the year before — that even some street-level drug dealers were pleading for greater police presence: One police commander, Melvin Russell, told New York magazine in 2015 that he’d been approached by a drug dealer in the same area where Gray had been arrested, who asked him to send a message back to the police commissioner. “We know they still mad at us,” the dealer said. “We pissed at them. But we need our police.”
One veteran Baltimore police officer said that the 2015 pullback was the result of almost instantaneous demoralization that spread across the department. Officers resented the lack of official direction and protective equipment during the riots, he said, and the charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest, which the Baltimore state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, had delivered in a ringing tone from the steps of the city’s War Memorial Building. The resentment was exacerbated by the fact that Mosby’s own office had recently requested heightened enforcement in exactly the area where Gray was arrested.
“You were responding to calls — if an old lady was being robbed, you were going to stop them. But as far as being very aggressive and doing proactive patrolling of the sort that Mosby had demanded, that was over,” the officer said. “We did exactly what you wanted! And a horrible accident occurred.
A mural of Freddie Gray near where he lived in Baltimore.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The pullback carried local resonance: Baltimore had been the site of the nation’s last major police strike, in 1974, when nearly half of the department’s 2,800 officers joined a strike by sanitation workers, jail guards, highway repairers, and park and zoo maintenance workers over wage increases deemed inadequate amid rising inflation. “I’m a cop/my life is on the line/but not for 5.5%” and “I will not die for 5 1/2%,” read signs on the picket line. After a spike in looting and arson, the governor sent in state police as reinforcements. The strike ended after four days. The city delivered a larger wage increase the next year, but the police commissioner fired more than 80 officers for organizing the strike and revoked the union’s collective-bargaining rights, which were not restored until 1982.
In the spring of 2015, a formal strike was out of the question. The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police sent no signals about a pullback, the veteran officer said. There was no need to — the cues coming from other officers, particularly from more veteran ones toward more junior ones, were enough. “They were very careful about not saying anything official or unofficial that you should lay down and not do your job. But the writing was on the wall,” the officer said. “It was the sense that you need to look out for yourselves and not put yourself in harm’s way or put yourself at any [legal] risk, because you aren’t going to have the support of the department.”
The role of underpolicing amid the rising tide of violence was evident even to the staunchest advocates for reining in the police. “Police ‘not doing their job,’ I don’t think can be the sole explanation,” Grandpre, the local activist, told me in 2019. “I do think, however, there is a perception among people in street organizations that the police are not doing their job. And that perception creates the feeling that they could get away with it now, when there was a feeling they could not get away with it four or five or six years ago.”
Baltimore became the classic example of the exception observed by the Fryer and Devi study: a city in which a “viral” incident brings about a federal investigation into policing practices correlated with a notable increase in violent crime. The other five exceptions cited in Fryer and Devi’s paper were Chicago; Cincinnati; Riverside, California; and Ferguson, Missouri, where the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown led Sam Dotson, then the St. Louis police chief, to coin the phrase “Ferguson effect” to describe rising violence in his own, larger city following protests.
In their paper, Fryer and Devi note that spikes in violence were not observed in cities that had a viral incident but no ensuing federal investigation, such as North Charleston, South Carolina, following the 2015 police shooting of Walter Scott as he ran from an officer. In those cases, Fryer said in an interview, police seem able to compartmentalize the criticism of the incident, rather than see it as an indictment of the entire force. “If the police feel like the management has their back, which is what they tend to feel if there’s a viral incident and no investigation, then they continue on,” Fryer said.
Fryer said he was also struck to find that investigations not sparked by viral incidents also did not produce spikes in violent crime. But something about the combination of the two — a viral incident leading to an investigation — seemed to lead to police pullbacks and higher rates of violence. “What I’ve heard [officers] say is: ‘I don’t want to be the next YouTube sensation. All I want is my pension. I’ve got a family to worry about.’ They’re putting their life on the line to do this work, and if it’s not going to be appreciated then they’re pulling back,” he said. “It’s incredible the amount of media intensity that happens when there’s a viral incident. It’s not that investigations are different, they’re the same, but it’s the view that, If I make a mistake under these circumstances, it’s going to be career altering.”
Rosenfeld, the co-author of the study showing how little impact de-policing has had on violent crime in most cities in recent years, told me that Fryer and Devi’s study was “complementary” to his own in identifying an exception to the overall trend in a handful of cities. “Those are cities where the community’s relationship with police is enormously fraught, and in those situations, people tend to withdraw from the police and take matters into their own hands,” he said. “It’s not just what police are or aren’t doing that could be provoking more incidents. It’s also the community reacting to police brutality.”
In Baltimore, the pullback has persisted five years later, in an evolved form. The resentment that police harbored over the charges against the six officers has dissipated; none of the cases ended with a conviction. Now, the veteran officer said, the continued decline in arrest rates and proactive-policing levels are driven more by uncertainty over what is allowed under the city’s new consent decree, even after multiple training sessions. Some of the sessions have been useful, the officer said — for instance, on the rules around searches and seizures. But officers are still uncertain about the expanded use-of-force definitions, he said, which include forcible handcuffing, as in Seattle, and about when and how they are allowed to clear crowds from major drug corners, so they often choose to simply drive by them. “The officers are confused. I have no idea what I can do and what I can’t do, and I’ve been an officer for 20 years,” he said. “The good members of the community want us to do our job. But the small number of noisy people who are getting in trouble over and over are out there dictating policy to the detriment of the city.”
Meanwhile, the 2015 surge in violence has yet to ebb five years later. The department’s efforts to win back the trust of the community have been hugely undermined by a police-corruption scandal that resulted in guilty pleas and convictions for a dozen officers, with charges outstanding against several more, the subject of a newly released book by two local journalists. The city finished last year with 348 homicides, even more than in 2015, and is on pace for nearly that many this year.
The hope remains that, over time, the consent-decree reforms will curb abuses and help rebuild community trust in the department, which in turn will make it easier to solve and prevent violent crimes. Departments — notably, Los Angeles’ — have managed to climb back from riots and scandal with the help of a consent decree while presiding over a reduction in violence.
But that hope is qualified for some reformers by local nuances. For one thing, Baltimore’s consent decree requires that the city hire more police officers, in contravention of activist calls to greatly reduce spending on policing. For another thing, Grandpre notes that the consent decree has made it harder for his organization and others to demand specific state-level reforms, such as increasing funding for witness protection in Baltimore. When they went to Annapolis to testify for that, the response was essentially that this was the purview of the federal government, given the consent decree. “It’s a barrier to offer[ing] more targeted forms of police-community reform,” Grandpre said. “They focus on abstract professional notions in ways that deter the more substantive reforms on the ground.”
The nationwide protests that erupted after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd suggest that his death may have given rise to something relatively new, the equivalent of a viral incident in each individual American city. And in some cities where municipal leaders have supplied the other ingredient researchers identified — signaling their support for broad reforms — police pullbacks appear well under way.
During the protests that followed Floyd’s death, Seattle police withdrew from their precinct house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, allowing the area to become an “autonomous” zone. In the following days, they were slow to respond to several emergency calls in or near the zone, including a shooting inside the area that left a 19-year-old dead and another injured. (The police attributed their slow response to having been impeded by the zone’s occupiers.) Many officers have also refused to uncover their badge numbers, deterring identification.
McGinn has been observing from the sidelines as the city, now under the leadership of Mayor Jenny Durkan, appears to be experiencing its own version of a silent strike protesting the activists and Durkan, who initially said the autonomous zone had a “block-party atmosphere. There s a lot of evidence that the police today are not fully under control of the mayor. No mayor can admit that, but all evidence seems to suggest that,” McGinn said in July, just before police finally moved to clear the autonomous zone. “They’re engaging in their own version of civil disobedience — showing that they’re the thin blue line and that without them there will be chaos. That’s what they believe and they want to go out there and prove it.”
In New York, the 205 shootings in June were the most for that month in the city since 1996, and shootings are up 72% over the first seven months of the year compared with last year. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea has said that his officers are feeling constrained by a new bill passed by the City Council that makes it a crime to put their knee into someone’s back and are feeling demoralized by a general lack of public support. Regardless of motivations, what is beyond dispute is that arrest rates have fallen sharply in the city since May, while violence has been rising, In the week of May 24, according to The New York Times, there were 113 gun arrests citywide; by early June, the weekly tally was down to 71, and by late June, it was at 22.
“There’s a slowdown without a doubt, and NYPD is allowing it,” the chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, Donovan Richards, told the Times. “We’ve seen what the NYPD will do when they want to keep record low shootings over the course of the last few years. Every year, we’re breaking this record, we’re breaking this record. There’s not an effort being made at this point.”
New York City police officers at a crime scene in Queens on July 6.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, where protests over Floyd’s death have lingered longer than in most other cities, 15 people fell victim to homicide in July, the city’s deadliest monthly toll in decades, while police have been fuming over the newly elected district attorney’s decision to dismiss many of the cases against protesters, which has in turn led to reports of disengagement by officers. All told, homicides in the 50 largest cities are up by nearly a quarter over the first half of the year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, while many other crimes, including robberies and burglaries, are generally down.
The former Seattle officer predicted that any pullbacks would follow the same template they had in his city. Officers with less than 10 years of experience who still want to engage in proactive policing might move to other departments. “They’re going to leave, because they received the message politically that it’s not being supported,” he said. Officers who have 10 or years or less until retirement will likely stay. Also sticking around will be officers with lengthy records of complaints — “‘internal affairs’ jackets that are too ugly” — because it’s hard for them to get hired elsewhere. Something of the sort appears to be under way in Minneapolis, where 65 officers have already left the department this year, well above the usual attrition rate of about 45 a year, according to the Times, and dozens of other officers on the force of about 850 have taken temporary leave since Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests.
The Seattle officer also predicted that officers who remain will scale back by, for instance, taking longer than necessary to handle a 911 call, just to fill their shift. A Washington, D.C., police officer told me he was already seeing signs of such easing back in his department, which has avoided a viral incident on par with the Floyd and Brooks deaths but has faced criticism for its aggressive response to the recent protests. “I haven’t seen anyone say we’re not going out because of this, but I have seen people take more time,” the D.C. police officer said.
The D.C. officer, like those from Seattle and Baltimore, was quick to underscore how appalled officers were by the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of the Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. “All of my colleagues had a feeling of broken hearts,” he said. “It was a sadness.” What has driven the widespread demoralization among officers, the officers said, was not the public condemnation of Chauvin, but the protests’ focus on police in general as the overwhelming target of their ire.
As many police see it, government and society have failed Black citizens and their neighborhoods on countless levels, and they have left it to the police to reckon with the consequences and then to bear the blame. The blame is especially hard to take, the officers say, when it comes from well-to-do white liberals who have moved to segregated suburbs or kept their kids in heavily white schools, yet are quick to accuse officers of racism. “It’s systemic. But wealthy whites in Northwest [D.C.] see a cop on Fox 5 do something that’s awful and they want to blame the cop and keep it moving and not accept the responsibility that we all have,” the D.C. officer said. “It’s great to Zoom into a City Council hearing and repeat what you heard at your Georgetown class.
Fueling the resentment of such criticism is the perception that some well-off critics are untouched by the high levels of violence in the neighborhoods that the officers spend a lot of their time patrolling. The officers also note that — as James Forman Jr. wrote about in his 2017 book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” — many residents of these neighborhoods see more of a need for a greater police presence than some activist rhetoric reflects. “They don’t have a stake in the game,” said the Baltimore officer of the police’s more privileged critics. “Where was the outrage of these people the weekend that 11 people were murdered [in Baltimore]? Instead, people were rioting over the murderous act by this ridiculous asshole,” Chauvin.
The Baltimore officer was among those detailed for the protests over George Floyd, which ended up being far more contained than the Freddie Gray protests five years ago, as well as the recent protests in other cities. Still, he said, it was hard to stand there and absorb the anger and scorn. “It’s demoralizing. After 20 years, it’s soul-crushing. I know I do good in the community. That’s what I do, at great sacrifice to my family and my health. The collateral damage of dealing with horrible, depressing stuff day after day, it adds up,” he said. “People are just so angered, and their anger is directed at us, because we are part of the machine and the system that has oppressed them. To have them screaming ‘All cops are bad; you’re a murderer’ is soul-crushing. I know better, but it just is.”
There is, in fact, a city that seemed to make it through a recent police pullback and the spike of violent crime that followed, and that can provide a model for mayors who want to pursue policing reforms. Fryer and Devi’s research paper cites Chicago’s 2016 homicide surge, alongside Baltimore’s, as an instance in which a police pullback accompanied a sharp rise in violent crime. In Chicago’s case, the pullback followed charges against the officers involved in the killing of Laquan McDonald. The 17-year-old was shot 16 times by police in 2014, but the video of the shooting wasn’t released until a year later. Chicago saw its homicide tally spike from 478 in 2015 to 756 in 2016, an increase nearly as large as that suffered by Baltimore from 2014 to 2015.
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% 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, most recently again on Aug. 10.
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.”
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