Everybody can see the problem -- Chicago somehow racks up more murders than New York, a city triple its size. Unfortunately, crime is a problem with causes difficult to pinpoint. With such elusive and diffused social sources, city policy often ends up hopelessly attacking the symptoms and following patterns just recently broken. Crime inevitably elicits plenty of articulation when it comes to the problem, but very few practical proposals for effectively addressing it.
It's hard not to applaud Emanuel for moving cops from pot busts to violence prevention. And he seems to understand that curbing gang violence will involve organizing communities who will together insist on and enforce safe streets. But clearly more must be done.
I fully volunteer the fact that I know nothing about law enforcement when it comes to the way it is structured here in Chicago. I don't know what I'm talking about. But I do know that the ideas I'm about to propose have never been tried here. And I assert that these proposals are prevention based rather than reaction based. In law enforcement that is no small thing.
While others draw attention to the violence issue, I aim to present some practical solutions to a problem that provokes few concrete and constructive proposals.
Proposal number 1: The short-term solution
Mayor Emanuel of course assigns urgency to this problem. If Chicago wants to reverse its demographic struggles, it's hard to avoid the fact that improving violent crime rates is likely a prerequisite. Indeed, it can be argued that New York's resurgence is not merely coincident with but rather due to the precipitous drop in crime there. Bringing down crime in Chicago would send a message to families throughout Chicagoland and the nation that Chicago is a good place to settle down and expect a decent quality of life for you and yours.
There must therefore be a short-term, practical strategy to swiftly bring down crime and show some results. It must be politically possible. It must, in short, be a strategy that can be swiftly implemented using police resources.
Note that violent crime in Chicago is highly concentrated in particular neighborhoods and particular streets.
Introducing the micro-police station:
The city picks a few areas with concentrated violence. Let's say the less hopeless part of Englewood around 69th and Halsted, the newly troubled streets of Chatham, the roundabouts of West Garfield Park, and the chaotic K-town. Rather than doubling down on beat officers as is the current habit, Chicago should invest in an area's improved public safety after it has shown troubling patterns. The city would buy portable and highly durable micro-stations, or police huts if you will, designed to seat a single cop. These are bolted to sunken steel beams (either located in a roundabout, a newly created roundabout, or a vacant corner lot) so that they are not easily vandalized and so as to create a kind of permanent position to return to with the micro-station later.
Now, the idea is to anticipate the problem and observe its migrations, preventing crime over an area in it would have been expected to show up. These micro-stations are set up to watch one block in each direction, so that their area of effect is two blocks along each axis, four blocks total. The stations are set up in a grid two blocks in any direction away from the next one so that their areas of effect become contiguous and so that officers in each hut can watch their brethren in adjacent stations. In the center between four huts, diagonal from any one and where none of them can see, there should be a blue light special camera fixture hooked up to all four surrounding stations. Stations themselves should also be highly camera-intensive. This four micro-station array, with the aid of the central camera, can cover an area 16 blocks square (4 by 4). The number of stations can be expanded to cover as large an area as required. When this system is set up in a community there should also be roving beat cops, moving between the micro-stations and set up to receive a call from any of them. Of course, officers should rotate positions in this array while remaining in the same community to build up local knowledge.
This system has the advantage of flexible permanence. A station array can set up in a neighborhood with mounting problems for several months in the summer, choking local gangs of area profits and forcing them to leave, dismantling local infrastructure. It could incrementally migrate by moving edge stations to the opposite side of the array. Then for the September-October season, it could respond dynamically and move to where some of this displaced activity has gone. If the system yields good results, utilizing half the police force in this way would adequately cover troubled areas while still leaving remaining officers to patrol the rest of the city.
The system has the disadvantage of expense, but it should be noted that long-term one of the practical effects is to replace police cars with micro-stations. It should be further noted that spending more money on effective strategy is less wasteful than spending less money on ineffective strategy.
Proposal number 2: The permanent solution
Mayor Emanuel is on the right track when he talks about organizing the churches against gang activity. He knows that ultimately the community is going to be the one to kick violence out and refuse to suffer the devastation that comes with gangs. A vigilant, empowered, and self-directed community is the key to safe streets.
But the problem lies in the establishment and nurturing of the structures that can bear these self-directed communities out. The most complete, thorough, and effective solution is of course to devolve city government down to the precinct level, as detailed in my entry about reforming city government in Chicago. That would empower communities, giving them a reason to organize and building the necessary neighborhood watch block club structures directly in to the culture and politics of the city.
But that is not an immediately realistic reform. Short of rebooting the aldermanic system, Emanuel can take his community organizational structures ideas to the next level by establishing, in partnership with local community institutions such as churches, a non-profit umbrella organization for block clubs. This organization would take no city funds, but would, once established by the city, solicit capital from charitable organizations and foundations, with the stated goal of organizing Chicago's communities for local betterment on the block level. It would share the burden of initiation and founding of neighborhood organizations with those neighbors in blocks without them already extant, and use these new structures to get conversations started. It would establish a website detailing newly established block club boundaries and allowing clubs to 'take control' of their club site. It would have a physical presence in every community through partnerships with local theaters and churches and other venues and important organizations. These institutions would allow the use of their facilities when block clubs hold joint meetings together or when the umbrella organization holds events for instruction on how to organize. The umbrella organization would often utilize a church or theater member as a paid spokesman to walk around the community and get people to the “how to” meetings, letting them know there is a block club on their block.
The organization would allow local churches and clubs and businesses to donate either to the organization or to the individual block club of their choice, such as the one down the street. General monies to the organization would be distributed to the block clubs that are active but lack financial support. Block clubs could use this money to form neighborhood watches, hold events for their residents, pool their money with neighboring block clubs to buy and fix up a vacant lot, install decorative benches or lights, or other desirable things. Residents could and often would, of course, contribute to their own club.
After there are contiguous block clubs throughout the city, the possibilities really open up. Empowered residents actively organizing to strive for better communities are far more likely to proactively take part in the safety of their communities. But the city could explore all kinds of things, like partnering with block clubs to select certain members as block security, giving them direct lines to local beat cops and something like a taser, or even giving them power to legally discharge their gun in defending a consenting neighbor's house against intruders. Or paying neighborhood “reporters” to walk around neighborhood blocks and submit a weekly report of activity. Suddenly variations of a citizen watch with limited police powers are possible, expanding the police force without corresponding spending. This watch could remain anonymous if so desired, so that many more could be incognito and greatly increase the accuracy of information on the ground.
It is easy to see how an active citizenry is the key to future crime prevention and gang dismantling. It really opens a whole new world of tools, and changes the whole game. Emanuel can help to establish crucial neighborhood structures that could help to end crime in Chicago as we know it -- FOR GOOD!
Proposal number 3: The long-term solution
The most politically impractical of my proposals is the long-term solution, which would cut the problem off at the apparent main source. Gangs are warring and highly profitable tribal drug cartels. Their turf is their place of business, their market, and they are naturally inclined to defend their market share from competition. Since a single individual is not likely able to defend his thousands a day profit against those who would take it from him, it becomes natural for armies to form and start profit-sharing.
This leads us to the conclusion that as long as there are illegal profits to fight over, there will be gangs on the street instead of in corporate offices. Gang warfare will not end until drug prohibition ends, and that's the reality. In the street, violence keeps profits flowing, but in the legal business world, lawlessness leaves one penniless and forsaken.
It's unlikely coincidental that city crime spikes coincided with the war on drugs. Americans would do well to remember that cocaine and heroine were once found on drug store shelves next to pain killers. It seems that a community inundated with only one trade produces more addiction than legally putting those addictive products on shelves. Even if that weren't the case, the lives of innocent preteen children being shot down in the street are worth the risk that people might make bad choices for themselves in the privacy of their own homes.
What can Emanuel do about this? Probably not much. He can lobby the state for legalization of some drugs, but he won't get anywhere. The people are not yet ready for what must be done, but Emanuel could certainly try and publicize these views and bring them more respectability.
Discussing the drug cartels and how they cause these problems then begs the question: why isn't this as big a problem in New York? I would say that it's because gangs' New York neighborhoods possess more alternative economic activity for their young people, a symptom of their healthier local economy. The other major long-term solution is increased economic competitiveness in Chicago, including less onerous regulations and lower taxes. This may seem unrelated until one considers that drug commerce thrives primarily in communities where it fills a gap left by a lack of legitimate commerce. The cycle of violence and incarceration is continued when young people have no way to support themselves outside of the drug trade. The mayor can offer especially low taxes for business located within the territory of distressed areas, rather than the current policy of giving handouts to corporations.
This is something Emanuel can do a lot about, and I'm hopeful that he will. Getting the city back on sound fiscal footing is a part of this.