For people who spend their lives studying crime—disentangling a massive knot of social problems, law enforcement conundrums and behavioral psychology—there is perhaps nothing more frustrating than a president who regularly uses his bully pulpit to imply that a wallop of federal force is all that’s needed to fix urban crime. But that’s what Donald Trump does, as he did when he called for national stop-and-frisk in an interview in September, and as he did on Tuesday night: “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” he tweeted.
There is a lot wrong with how Trump characterizes crime (or “carnage”) and American “inner cities,” as he likes to call them. For one, violent crime is on the decline nationwide generally. But his fixation on the city of Chicago in particular highlights a seemingly intractable problem that lurks behind those nationwide decreases: Many cities’ crime declines have leveled off, and a handful, including Chicago, are seeing rises after decades-long downward trends. And here’s the thing: No one really knows why.
I called John Pfaff, a leading criminologist who teaches at Fordham Law School and the author of a recent book on the root causes of mass incarceration, to help me understand the Chicago exception, and what it tells us about the state of urban crime in America. His answers:
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Politico Magazine: Saying something like “sending in the feds” is one of those things that has a lot of potential meanings. What can “sending in the feds” to Chicago look like?
John Pfaff: Most likely what that would mean would be increasing the number of FBI, DEA, ATF, those kinds of agents in Chicago, or, if not increasing the number, at least increasing the extent to which they are trying to work with the Chicago police to address issues like guns and drugs.
Politico: And has something like that been tried before?
Pfaff: Major cities all have DEA, ATF, FBI offices to work with the police. I honestly don’t know if anyone if anyone has measured how big an impact a bigger change in that staffing has had on crime rates, but I’m sure those staffing levels vary based on crime rates and other policy concerns. The DEA sometimes declares these are high-intensity drug zones and they proceed to help local police out more with investigations. So there’s always a constant flux in the amount of federal law enforcement involved. But I also think it’s important to understand the difference of scale between these agencies. The entire CPD has about as many officers as all of the FBI. So it’s not possible for the FBI to substantially increase the size of police in Chicago relative to what the CPD has because they just don’t have the manpower to do that.
Politico: Can you put Chicago’s violence into a national context? What is typical of its crime uptick given nationwide trends and what are the city’s exceptions?
Pfaff: Prior to 2016, like most major cities, Chicago’s homicide rate had declined. It was higher than that in some of the other big cities; it was about maybe four times higher than New York’s in the early 2010s. But it, New York and Houston and other big cities, had seen big declines since the 1990s. But Chicago’s rise between 2015 and 2016 does stand out compared to those other major cities. When they are all sort of flat, Chicago does see a substantial rise. And it’s not back to what it was in the early ‘90s, but it is about what it was in the mid-to-late ‘90s, which is a fairly sizeable increase. That said, compared to other Midwestern cities, even with this rise, Chicago still has a comparatively low homicide rate. It’s less than Milwaukee’s, it’s less that St. Louis’, it’s only slightly more than Detroit’s, it’s less than Baltimore, the other city that people pay a lot of attention to on the east coast. So it’s a big jump, and you don’t want to downplay the size or the significance of addressing that. But it’s also not that Chicago is the most violent city in America, or that this jump has put it in the unprecedented category.
Politico: That’s my general understanding: Overall violent crime in cities is declining nationwide, but there are these exceptions in a handful of cities. In Chicago specifically, what are some of the reasons that can explain why homicide is going up there?
Pfaff: I think what might be more useful to focus on, given how little we actually understand, isn’t what’s causing it but how is it distributed? By which I mean… what I think gets lost in the conversation about Chicago is that murder or homicide in Chicago does not go up as some kind of giant whole. If you look at the 2016 data, Chicago has 77 defined neighborhoods, and murder went up in 46 of them and went down in 31 of them. You can narrow it even more: 45 percent of the rise of the murders in 2015 and 2016 took place in just five of those 77 neighborhoods. And while those five neighborhoods contain about 9 percent of Chicago’s population, they were responsible for 32 percent of the total homicides and 45 percent of the total increase.
So it’s not like there’s a problem with Chicago as a whole. There are certain neighborhoods which tend to be defined by historic levels of poverty and low education and other social disadvantages that are struggling with murder more than other parts of the city. Which I think suggests that the solution isn’t just some sort of broad rollout of force; it’s trying to figure out what is causing this rise in lethal violence in these specific areas where it’s most densely concentrated.
Politico: So is there anything you know of in Chicago that has reduced violence or homicide?
Pfaff: There are some programs that have anecdotal support. There’s this program that’s called CeaseFire that has worked in some places and failed in others. Cure Violence operates on the principle that you can treat gun violence like a disease—that when one person gets shot, someone will retaliate, and so it spreads like a disease. Their goal is to break that by intervening the family of the victim and the friends of the victim to not retaliate with violence. And it’s true that the funding for Cure Violence got cut and lethal violence in Chicago rose after that, but the timing is a little tricky because the funding cut for Cure Violence took place months before the rise in violence. Which doesn’t mean there’s not a connection—it could be that it takes some time for the positive effect of the program to die off—but it’s not a nice, neat impact.
One thing that separates Chicago from other major cities is its level of gun-related violence. If you look at non-gun violence, Chicago looks like New York and Philadelphia and Houston. It’s hard to measure gun prevalence in cities; all we can measure it with is police seizures of guns, and so does that mean there are more guns in the city or just that police are more aggressive at getting them off the street? It’s hard to know whether greater seizure reflects greater prevalence or greater enforcement. But Chicago does seize more guns than even larger cities like New York.
Politico: You mentioned the cities with worse crime than Chicago, like St. Louis for example. Why is Trump so obsessed with Chicago, do you think, and more generally, why has it become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with urban America?
Pfaff: Chicago has so much more people than St. Louis or Milwaukee, that it can be in the news every day for murder—St. Louis and Milwaukee don’t have the numbers for that. So that’s part of it, but another part of it is that Chicago has been tied to President Obama, so attacks on Chicago aren’t always about Chicago; they’re about Obama. And I think one of the things people are worried about is that attacks on Chicago have become about perceived pathologies of the black community. It’s a way of criticizing Obama, criticizing Democrats and there’s a racial spin to it as well.
Politico: There’s a part of the White House website that links support for law enforcement with support for gun rights. It seems like there could be a conflict there, though. Do you know anything about fatal shootings of police officers in Chicago?
Pfaff: Regardless what the actual rate of shootings are, there’s probably a greater risk that they’ll use lethal violence as a response. One of the challenges you face when it comes to police, and the Trump administration’s position [is] that these consent decrees [like the one between Chicago and Obama’s Department of Justice] insult police officers, those actually hurt policing. A fascinating study came out earlier this year that in response to a single act of police brutality in one major city, the number of 911 calls starts to drop by about 20,000 over the course of the following year. So because people were afraid, they stopped calling police for various offenses and that was undermining the deterrent effect that policing has. So the idea that if you try to put constraints on police misconduct it will undermine their ability to do their job flies in the face of the fact that when police officers are acting in an excessively aggressive way, that actually undermines their ability to accomplish the job we want to see them do. The DoJ released a report showing that Chicago police have very bad relationships with communities and engage in all sorts of tactics that are likely to cause resentment and anger toward the police, which are likely to result in less 911 calls, and are likely to result in less cooperation, less 911 calls. And I would guess that those kinds of practices are concentrated in the poorer, more disadvantaged parts of Chicago, which are in fact the areas that saw the biggest rise in lethal violence in 2016.
Politico: So, just from what you’ve studied for such a long time, what do we know has worked in other cities? If Trump really were serious about solving Chicago’s crime and gun violence problem, what should he look to first?
Pfaff: I think there’s been some evidence that careful, targeted deployment of police shows a fair amount of promise. And things that try to integrate policing with broader social services as well. One program that’s gotten fairly strong reviews—it’s been tried out in many cities and like any program, it failed in some and succeeded in others, but if you look at it overall seems effective—is a program called CeaseFire, and idea behind CeaseFire is what they call “targeted deterrence.” You sit down with those people that are most responsible for lethal violence in that city—so it’s not just identifying members of street gangs, it’s taking the two gangs that are feuding with each other and talking to those ones—and you give them a choice. You say, If this violence continues, we are going to crack down on you really hard collectively as a group. But if you don’t [continue], we have various members of city social services here with us, and they’re willing to work with you to get drug treatment, alcohol treatment, education, housing help, job help. So they know, we’re not just going to threaten you with deterrence, we also want to help you on a different path if you want to do that. It also brings in senior people in the community, so it’s not just city police and city officials saying don’t do this—it’s people who hopefully these young men look up to and respect. So that’s been shown to have an effect.
Another program that’s been shown to have an effect—not a huge effect but overall effective—is what’s called Hot Spot policing. Again, you focus on the geography of where crime is happening, and you deploy police to focus on those areas. That seems to work, and it works in a way that seems not to just place crime elsewhere. One complaint about Hot Spot policing is that if all the crime is on First Street and you flood First Street with cops, crime will just shift to Second Street. But you don’t see that—actually crime goes down on First and Second Street in response to Hotspot policing.
So programs that target where crime is concentrated and tries to combine that with social services and other options that provide a path out of criminal behavior seem to be successful.