Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A look at approaches to address violent crime


Earlier this week, Chicago voters decided that Mayor Lori Lightfoot would not have a second term.


LORI LIGHTFOOT: We were fierce competitors and these last few months. But I will be rooting and praying for our next mayor to deliver for the people of the city for years to come.

MARTIN: Back in 2019, Lightfoot made history as the city's first Black woman mayor and first openly gay mayor. This week, however, she also became the first mayor in Chicago to lose a re-election bid in decades. Like other mayors elsewhere, Lightfoot faced some once in a generation challenges like guiding a city through the worldwide pandemic as well as some typical ones, like fights with the police and teachers unions and frosty relations with some of her fellow elected officials. But Chicago Tribune columnist Laura Washington told NPR that one problem seemed to stand out.

LAURA WASHINGTON: The top issue was public safety and crime. Chicago has been experiencing a surge in crime, particularly violent crime, in the last several years.

MARTIN: Lightfoot said her administration was responsible for the 20% drop in shootings and a 14% drop in homicides from 2021 to 2022. But for voters, that didn't change the fact that there were still 695 homicides last year, among the city's highest tally since 1999. While a lot of the blame for the city's ongoing crime problem fell on Lightfoot, Washington says the situation is more complicated.

WASHINGTON: The city is dealing with many social and economic problems and challenges. There's not enough city money being devoted to anti-violence programs or social service programs. We just went through a pandemic. We went through social unrest around the city, and some of that, I think, is responsible for creating the instability. But I think voters expect her to be able to. You know, she's the mayor. They expect her to be able to solve the problem.

MARTIN: The reasons for crime may be complex, but it's a good bet that Chicago voters will look to their next mayor to do the job they felt Lightfoot could not. Paul Vallas, a former CEO of the City School District, and Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, both Democrats, are headed to the April runoff. Vallas has already staked out his territory as the candidate who will be tough on crime. And in his eyes, that means more support and more money for the police.

PAUL VALLAS: Public safety is the fundamental right of every American. It is a civil right.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Brandon Johnson was once aligned with the defund the police movement that found its voice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020. While he now downplays that idea, he still prefers to emphasize community based anti-violence programs and improved social services.


BRANDON JOHNSON: If we're going to have a safe city, we do what safe American cities do around the country, and that's invest in people. So promoting detectives within the rank and file. But again, our mental health centers have to be reopened. We need to have front responders that can respond to the 911 calls that are mental health crises. So we're promoting 200 more detectives within the rank and file. We're opening up our mental health clinics and making sure that our first responders, our social workers and EMTs, because nearly 40% of the 911 calls that come through our mental health crises. So we're taking the root causes, but we're also dealing with the immediate crisis of public safety.

MARTIN: Violent crime is up in cities and in suburbs in so-called blue states and red. But no matter where people live, people who feel under siege are looking to elect leaders who can deal with a problem that can be literally about life and death. Strategies for reducing violent crime often diverge along party lines and even within the parties. But do we really even know what works? And if so, what's getting in the way of solutions? We ask two analysts who have been researching and working on strategies to reduce violence and crime for years for their take.

JA'RON SMITH: The truth of the matter is people want police. They want protection.

MARTIN: Ja'Ron Smith is a fellow with Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform group. He's also an organizer with Public Safety Solutions for America, a coalition he launched to help communities implement effective strategies to reduce crime. And Smith is convinced that robust, consistent funding for police departments is key.

SMITH: We think that police organizations need to have access to permanent funding. We think that's the proper role of government. Too many law enforcement agencies depend on fines and fees, and we think that creates perverse incentives around how they police in so many different circumstances. Police spend like 7% of their time actually dealing with solving violent crime. And so with the increase in violent crime across the country, it's important that they have the the resources they need to focus on that time and maybe look at other models like co responder services, where they would partner with mental health professionals or people who specialize in homelessness will give them more time to focus on violent crime.

MARTIN: Smith says that while his organization has a focus on strengthening police, he says he also believes in improving support for. Unities that have long lived with the consequences of disinvestment and neglect, communities that also disproportionately bear the brunt of violent crime. He says that for a holistic approach to crime reduction to succeed, partisan politics needs to take a back seat.

SMITH: I think crime is - depending on where you live, it can be, like, the No. 1 issue that you think about or like a secondary issue. I think for those who live in the suburbs, it's maybe secondary if they're thinking about maybe coming to urban areas and don't want to risk, you know, being carjacked or being robbed. But then there's people who've historically lived in these communities and just seeing their communities get worse where it's a primary issue for them. And I think we need to do something about it. I think that America no longer needs to kind of move forward on being this tale of two cities, but we need our politicians and elected leaders to take it seriously and not politicize this issue.

THOMAS ABT: If you're going to sustainably reduce crime and violence, it has to be done with the permission of impacted communities and they have to see the work as fair and legitimate.

MARTIN: Thomas Abt is the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction and an associate professor there. He says the goal of the nonpartisan center is to save lives, to stop violent crime by promoting solutions backed by research and real world evidence. He also advised outgoing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at one time. So I started by asking him his take on her loss and if he agrees that it was mainly a result of her record on crime.

ABT: You know, when you look at the spike in violent crime, it hasn't just happened in Chicago. It's happened all around the country. And there's three broad explanations for this surge. It's the pandemic. It's the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd. And it's a surge in gun sales, many of which ultimately and fairly fast ended up in the hands of criminals. None of those three factors are actually under mayor's control. But mayors do have a say in what happens in their cities. And here's the key thing to understand. Crime and violence reduction is a team sport, and the mayor is the coach of that team. And that team doesn't succeed unless it's individual players work well, police, community groups, treatment and service providers, faith leaders. And I think what we saw in Chicago is that Mayor Lightfoot's well known, relatively combative style was a real challenge to her. It wasn't really ideological. It was that she couldn't bring people together and keep them together in a common purpose.

MARTIN: So when you look at murder rates, for example, Chicago is not No. 1 on the list of American cities, interestingly enough. I think that some people might be surprised by that. But that doesn't change how it feels if you live there. It doesn't change how you feel if it's a relative or loved one of yours who's gotten shot no matter where that is. But it does raise some questions about perception. You remember back in 2017, former President Trump decided that he was going to make, you know, an example of Chicago, like he has other cities who are - that are run by Democrats. OK. He tweeted that killings had reached epidemic proportions. He said he was going to send federal help to Chicago to fight crime. So when we talk about this issue, does perception play a role in how we think about it?

ABT: It absolutely plays a role. And I think that we're having a relatively unhealthy national conversation about crime and justice. On one hand, we have some who are demagoguing the issue, sensationalizing it. But on the other hand, you have some folks who basically say, look, because it's not as bad as it was in the late '80s and early '90s, which it isn't, that there's really nothing to see here, and we shouldn't worry about it. And they basically try to change the subject when people bring up valid concerns. And so what I say again and again is the surge in violent crime, which is real, is a cause for concern but not panic. So, you know, in 2022, we're down 4% on homicides.

MARTIN: From what year?

ABT: From the previous year, from 2021 to 2022. But we're up about 34% over the pandemic entirely. And so it's hard to sort of strike the right balance, but that's exactly what we need. We need balance.

MARTIN: So let me just see if I hear what you're saying. You're saying overall, violent crime is nowhere near the levels of the 1990s, but there has been a rise in violent crime since 2020, which was when the pandemic started, when we understood that it was a pandemic, when the big societal shutdowns - really, like, all over the world. And what I think I hear you saying is on the one hand, that there are people who are amplifying it and calling it basically a Democratic problem, and it's because these people aren't doing their job. But you also say that there's a countervailing group of people who are minimizing it. Who are those people? Who's doing that?

ABT: Well, that's some folks on the left who are feeling defensive as they're being attacked by the right. And they are, in some circumstances, so concerned about undermining their movement for criminal justice reform that they're really worried that the fears of crime could undo that. But I think it's really important to understand about the violent crime surge, that it happened everywhere. It happened in red states. It happened in blue states. It happened in cities. It happened in suburbs and rural counties. It happened in cities that are led by Republicans and cities that are led by Democrats. So it's not a Republican-Democrat issue. But I think the other thing is that we really shouldn't be scapegoating criminal justice reform efforts. There's really no evidence that criminal justice reform is responsible for this spike. As I said, it was the pandemic, this social unrest in the wake of George Floyd, which was really triggered by an incident of police violence, and then this massive surge in guns.

MARTIN: More broadly, though, I think what people say, it's the defund the police movement, which they say has led to a lack of respect for the police and a lack of respect for law enforcement authority and a lot of police quitting. Is there any validity to that?

ABT: There's some validity to that. And, you know, some of the critiques of policing and of the criminal justice system go too far. But what I would say is we do also have to sort of begin at the beginning, which is, you know, where did this criticism come from? It came from highly controversial, highly publicized incidents of police violence. The protest didn't come from nothing. And so the protests are a response to a real problem. And we have to address that problem while maintaining public safety. And so, you know, this is the challenge. You know, you're either with the police or you're against the police. You're either concerned about social justice or all you're concerned about is violent crime. And the fact of the matter is, we've got to be able to do multiple things at the same time. And, in fact, if we make the system more fair and more legitimate, it'll be better at solving crimes, not worse.

MARTIN: I guess I'm still kind of struggling with this question of, why is this so hard? Why is this so hard to achieve violence reduction? I mean, it seems to me that, you know, let's say your mother gets hit over the head at the bus stop, you know, trying to go to work. You don't really care, you know, who, you know - the Republican or Democratic approach is not what's most present with you. It's - people just want to live without being, you know, afraid for their safety. Right? And it's just - I'm just - why is this so hard?

ABT: I think there's three reasons. I've thought a lot about this, and I've come up against this for many years. I think the first reason is that the public safety solutions that work best don't really fit neatly with the political talking points of either the left or the right. So they don't appeal to the base because they're a little bit conservative, they're a little bit progressive. They're a messy mix of both. The second thing is they're a little bit more complicated than just get all the guns off the street or just lock everybody up. They're research and evidence informed. They take longer to explain, which is tough in today's sort of social media environment. And the last thing I think we just have to be honest about is that they disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised people in our country. These issues predominantly or disproportionately impact poor communities of color, and that warps the way we address it because they lack the political power to insist on these sensible solutions. And it makes it easier to sort of talk past these communities and make it about ideology and not problem solving.

MARTIN: Thomas Abt is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice. He leads a new institute at the University of Maryland focused on reducing violence. And he's the author of "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences Of Urban Violence - And A Bold New Plan For Peace In The Streets." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.