By Steve Huntley
June 23, 2020
Been there, done that.
America’s police departments can justifiably say that. Because once before they faced a crime wave crippling cities and brought it under control, enabling an urban renaissance across the country.
Now, after two years of lawlessness and violence burning through America, evidence is mounting Americans want a replay of that history.
Look at elections ousting a criminal-friendly prosecutor in San Francisco and elevating a law-and-order advocate into a runoff for mayor of Los Angeles. Next up is a likely recall election against a criminal-coddling district attorney in Los Angeles and hope in Chicago for the election next year of a new mayor committed to fighting crime.
Those are promising signs. But expect the pushback from the far left to be desperate, powerful and down-and-dirty. Progressives won’t roll over after all the years they worked to achieve the cultural revolution that brought us to where we are today.
The 1960s saw urban riots set cities aflame, police were vilified as “pigs,” and crime erupted in downtowns and neighborhoods. The cities burned. Middle class families and businesses fled to the suburbs as once vibrant business districts descended into ghost towns with an undercurrent of menace stalking the streets.
Then in 1982 a couple of social scientists advanced “the broken windows theory” on how to fight crime. That concept holds that ignoring minor crimes and the evidence of such crimes—like broken windows—sends powerful rippling signals that no one cares about the neighborhood, that laws aren’t enforced — and this naturally leads to more crime and to more serious crime. Enforcing low-level crimes like vandalism, street prostitution, and open drug use and dealing would prevent more serious crime. That was the theory.
In other words, all laws matter.
Urban police agencies adopted the broken windows theory or variants of it, often adding a community policing approach to build closer relationships in the neighborhoods. By the turn of the century crime was headed down and cities were experiencing a rebirth.
But thanks to a couple of decades of good times in the 21st century, America forgot that consistent and tough policing policies rescued its cities from that siege of violent crime and the anarchy of lawlessness.
Progressive activists and ultra-liberal politicians didn’t forget broken windows policing. They hated it. Far left academics started churning out “studies” to discredit the successful work of broken windows. To progressives, law breakers aren’t criminals, they’re victims of a society the far left detests and of racism.
So began the rollback. Liberal-run cities declared themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. Our border laws didn’t matter. Fewer drug prosecutions said narcotics laws didn’t matter. Shoplifting laws weren’t prosecuted. Arrests for vagrancy were driven down, more laws that didn’t matter.
The result: more illegal immigration, more drug use, more robbery, more homeless — and ever more serious crimes.
This week Chicago police brass rolled out a new policy prohibiting cops from chasing suspects on foot for minor crimes or for fleeing to avoid police. That undercuts proactive policing. It limits officer discretion and again signals that some laws and suspicious activity don’t matter. Also, according to the new policy, officers should “consider alternatives” to pursuit even if the suspect “is visibly armed with a firearm.” Gun laws begin the slide into the don’t-matter category.
The progressive campaign against law enforcement required changing the way we talk and even think about crime. In contrast to vagrant came bland ambiguous terms like “homeless,” or “unhoused,” evoking images of a man out of work or a woman fleeing domestic violence in need of a little help to get back on their feet. Enforcing vagrancy laws, progressives insisted, was “criminalizing homelessness.”
But that politicized language disguised the real problem — the mentally ill, the addicts, the alcoholics, the criminals who turned city streets first into a panhandler’s arena, then into tent encampments and finally, in the worst cases, into open toilets.
Similarly, illegal immigrants became “the undocumented” or simply “migrants.”
Much more ominously, arresting criminals and locking them up was demonized as “mass incarceration.” This one was particularly effective in flimflamming Americans into ignoring the reality that so-called mass incarceration was accompanied by much lower crime rates.
Requiring bail for those arrested for crimes traditionally was a way to ensure the accused turned up for trial as well as serving as a gauge of the seriousness of the charges and separating the seriously violent from the community at large before trial. Now this became “criminalizing poverty.” Felons arrested got out without bail to wreak more havoc.
This perversion of language is familiar to anyone who read the great dystopian novel “1984” by George Orwell. In it, a Big Brother dictatorial government controlled public discourse through the use of language called “Newspeak.”
“Newspeak” was “designed to diminish the range of thought,” so that unapproved (and therefore heretical) thought would be literally unthinkable, so far as thoughts are dependent on words.
Orwell wrote that language becomes “inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
And there was nothing more foolish that the election of a wave of woke prosecutors dedicated not to prosecuting crime but finding ways not to prosecute crime. All in the name of “social justice” — not the justice-is-blind standard expected in any sane society. At the forefront of this insanity were Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the recently recalled and unseated San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. Under their direction, even more laws didn’t get enforced and didn’t matter.
Undergirding and driving all of this was an aggressively progressive “social justice” campaign that began in the fringes of academia. It moved quickly mainstream into major media, Hollywood, executive suites, sports and even our high schools and elementary schools, shaping and reconfiguring how we think about lawlessness, crime and our culture, as shocked parents learned by watching zoom classes during the covid pandemic.
That campaign added up to a huge, often unhinged broadside against U.S. history, our Constitution, Western civilization, our Judo-Christian heritage, Christianity itself, the nuclear family and “toxic masculinity,” woke speak for white men. It was accompanied by a relentless promotion of divisive identity politics and, above all, racial grievance.
It produced a poisonous culture which in turn bred a shadowy, cancerous subculture of zealots and fanatics, often rallying under the flag of Antifa, who showed up at any large political protest, spoiling for a fight and eager to make a bad situation worse.
The tinderbox was set. It only needed a match, a single spark, a flame.
That came in 2020 in Minneapolis when George Floyd, a black addict with a criminal record, tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store and a rogue white cop with a record of misconduct complaints knelt on Floyd’s neck and killed him. The confrontation was caught on video, setting ablaze a wildfire burning through American cities and spawning ever more crime as progressives again vilified police.
Chicago knows this crime wildfire all too well. New grieving mothers and fathers every weekend from the epidemic of street violence. Shootings around the famous Bean. A woman stabbed to death in the shadow of the Willis Tower. A five-month-old girl was shot to death over the weekend as she sat in the back of a car, the latest victim of Chicago’s endless street gang wars.
Upscale neighborhoods on the North Side hiring security guards to patrol their streets. These private security armies are also in place on the Southwest Side, and also in high taxed neighborhoods. Carjackings here, there and everywhere.
And Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago’s other political leaders, as documented by John Kass, unable and politically unwilling to stem the tide of crime, violence and fear haunting a great city.
How many residents of Chicago will remain if violent crime continues to flourish is a question also haunting the city.
Voters fed up with the crime wave and the California election results have politicians talking tough on crime. But talk is cheap, and it shows. New York elected a new mayor who promised law and order, but the ongoing violence and disorder has only 29 percent of New Yorkers approving the job Eric Adams has done.
In the Los Angeles mayoral race, the actual law and order candidate, Rick Caruso, faces in the runoff progressive Karen Bass. Her tough-on-crime electioneering is so at odds with her far left history in Congress that it just doesn’t ring true.
Consider the words of far-left Chicago mayoral candidate Kam Buckner: “In a Buckner administration, if you are a police officer who does your job within the scope of the laws of Illinois, the City of Chicago and our U.S. Constitution, who operates in the bounds of your training, this will be the best big-city cop job you will find in America.”
If! Cops hear that “if” and can be forgiven for thinking that Buckner doesn’t have genuine faith in them. They can be forgiven for concluding “if” means that they’ll be second-guessed as soon as an arrest, confrontation or shooting is turned into a “controversy” by the cop hating crowd.
Restoring cop morale and rebuilding the ranks of the Chicago police force must be the top priority of any mayor who wants to end the siege of crime. Whatever social programs some might champion, there will be no lasting improvement in the crime crisis without committed police officers backed by City Hall.
One morale-boosting step Chicago’s next mayor might consider is to issue an uncompromising declaration that police officers will get the benefit of the doubt on judgment calls. No ifs.
That’s not a license for cops to bash heads. It doesn’t mean ignoring bad cops. And it’s not a roadmap to a police state.
But it would be a simple recognition that every day cops are called out to volatile, stressful, high-pressure, dangerous situations to cope with unstable, angry, crazed, drug- or alcohol-fueled individuals. Guns and knives raise already white-hot stakes. That explosive combination can force officers to make split-second decisions.
Those law enforcement officers deserve our understanding of the unpredictable crisis circumstances we ask them to navigate. Already this year 25 Chicago cops have been shot at or shot, reports police Supt. David Brown, and that includes two seriously wounded in just one week during June. Nationwide, 141 cops have been shot this year, including 21 killed and 42 shot in ambush attacks, according to the National Fraternal Order of Police.
Many urban police departments, including Chicago, are finding it difficult to replace experienced officers who resign, seek early retirement, or find other police work elsewhere.
The reality of taking back the streets may make for some ugly police encounters with street toughs and gang criminals. The reality of body cameras and the ubiquity of smart phone cameras virtually guarantee a visual record of such a confrontation.
Rush-to-judgment “community activists,” sanctimonious cable TV personalities and cops-are-never-right “social justice” lawyers will replay those tapes over and over, in slow motion and backwards into the media echo chamber. They’ll be looking for a nanosecond hinting at a faintly ambiguous moment that they can jump on and shout: “Eureka!! See? That cop did have a choice to handle things differently!!”
The first time that happens on a new mayor’s watch, he or she must stand by the cops and denounce the cop-haters for slandering hard-working police. If a lawsuit comes, the new mayor must push back and ignore the budget guys saying that it would be cheaper and much easier to settle. Instead, that new mayor must fight the suit with every motion, at every hearing and for as long as it takes.
Then and only then will police know City Hall has their backs.
That will take a mayor with a spine of steel. It’s not hard to imagine that tough stance coming from a politician such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
It is hard to imagine a liberal Democrat drawing that red line and standing firm.
The hopes of Chicagoans looking for an actual crime-fighting mayor seem to be coalescing on Paul Vallas. The thinking is that he can beat Lightfoot if he can emerge from February’s crowded primary and face her in a one-on-one runoff.
What Vallas has going for his tough-on-crime promises is his record as a smart, energetic, earnest individual who demonstrated his commitment to help the lives of the people he serves when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools. He understands law enforcement: his wife was a cop and a son is a cop.
In an interview on The Chicago Way podcast Vallas pledged to create a judicial review board to “monitor and publicize” the state attorney’s decisions on bail for those charged with violent crimes.
That probably won’t bring fundamental change from Foxx, but it can’t hurt. The real answer is the voters replacing her with an actual prosecutor, and that should be on the next mayor’s to-do list even if it requires recruiting a candidate. But that election is a long way off, in 2024.
The February mayoral campaign has already begun. Chicagoans have a chance to remind politicians, as San Francisco and LA voters have been reminded, of a fundamental truth:
The first duty of local government is to provide a safe city, safe streets, a safe downtown, and safe neighborhoods for its citizens to live their lives, raise their families, build their careers, their businesses, and follow their dreams.
Without that, nothing else matters.
Steve Huntley, a retired Chicago journalist now living in Austin, Texas, has contributed other pieces to johnkassnews, from an examination of the secret jail for Christopher Columnbus and other politically problematic public art to an essay on Americans suffering from Joe Biden gas pain.
For almost three decades Huntley spent most of his career in Chicago journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was a feature writer, metro reporter, night city editor, metropolitan editor, editorial page editor and a columnist for the opinion pages.
Before that he was a reporter and editor with United Press International (UPI) in the South and Chicago, and Chicago bureau chief and a senior editor in Washington with U.S. News & World Report. Northwestern University Press has issued soft cover and eBook editions of Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America by Truman K. Gibson Jr. with Steve Huntley, a memoir of a Chicagoan who was a member of President Roosevelt’s World War II Black Cabinet working to desegregate the military.
It is an honor and privilege to have Mr. Huntley, who spent decades in the news business in Chicago, writing pieces here.