In Chicago, Two Administrations Spar on Policing

by Brendan Kennedy 

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump pledged to end the “American carnage” that he saw across the country. Under fire for this dark vision, Trump and his supporters used the city of Chicago to prove his point. The President pointed to the city’s spike in shooting, threatening to “send in the Feds.” His supporters linked rising crime in the city to the “Ferguson effect”, arguing that scrutiny on police practices was causing the violence in Chicago and elsewhere.

A week before the Inauguration, the Obama administration also brought the city of Chicago into the headlines for issues of crime and policing, but with a vastly different focus. The Justice Department released the conclusion of its investigation into the Chicago Police Department, which found “a pattern or practice” of unconstitutional force by the department. The findings were the last in a series of investigations into unconstitutional actions, undue force, or racial discrimination by police departments across the nation.

Within a week, the city of Chicago had been the subject of two distinct visions of crime and crime-fighting. Analyzing how the two administrations address the city, as well as the broader issues of criminal justice, reveals how they both craft narratives about crime and policing.

At its core, three things are essential in studying criminology: identifying a problem, finding its causes, and crafting a solution. President Obama voiced the concerns of underrepresented groups who had been subject to over-policing and mass incarceration. Perhaps realizing that these groups faced an uphill cultural battle, his administration addressed problems, causes, and solutions in thorough, consistent, and data-driven ways. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has taken the side of the traditionally supported police. As a result, his arguments have tended to be more cultural, with the data presenting a more tenuous narrative. These strategies are both plainly evident in how the two administrations have handled the city of Chicago.

The Obama Strategy

President’s Obama’s administration took on an incredibly thorny issue when it began to advocate for police reform. The timing seemed right: after decades of harsh policing leading to mass incarceration, underrepresented communities began to speak out. Incidents of police violence drew attention, and became ways for these communities to protest against systemic issues.

But the general public was skeptical. After decades of being told that all-out war on “criminal elements” was the only way to bring safety, many were unconvinced that the problem existed or was as serious as claimed. In an effort to convince both traditional power structures and a public with a history or unrepentant racism, the Obama administration sought to elevate its case above the fray with fair, thorough analysis of the fact at hand. To do this, they developed a method for “pattern-or-practice investigations”.

These investigations worked to apply a consistent process to identifying unconstitutional police departments, determining why such practices occur, and finding solutions.

In Chicago, the model was put into place. The Department of Justice reviewed CPD policies, analyzed a random sample of force reports and misconducts, went over shooting investigations, spoke with over three hundred officers, and received input from community leaders and members. The conclusions revealed a widespread problem of unconstitutional use-of-force and dangerous decision making by officers. After finding that CPD training and accountability was woefully inadequate, the investigation laid out a plan to work with city officials and community members, looking to replicate exist efforts at reform that had proven effective.

The report does not ignore the spike in homicides that the city experienced. On the contrary, the report details how reform of the police department may be integral to lowering homicides in Chicago. After noting the severity of the gun violence problem in Chicago, the report addressed a potential cause: the inability of CPD to crime-fight effectively due to their lack of legitimacy in the community. This is a well-studied phenomenon, and it has been well demonstrated that unjust police departments are unlikely to receive necessary cooperation from the public. This seemed to be the case in Chicago, where “homicide clearance rates… continued their years-long slide, with CPD clearing only 29% of all homicides, less than half the national clearance rate.” Reform is key to crime-fighting in the eyes of the Obama administration, in an effort to repair the crucial relationships between the police and their communities.

The Trump Strategy

The Trump’s administration’s perspective is the opposite, defending the police and arguing that calls for police reform have led to widespread violence. By supporting the existing power structure and reinforcing traditional ideas about policing and criminality, Trump has tapped into the pervasive culture that views potentially illegal policing as necessary to fight the rampant crime that inner-city communities ignore. As a result, Trump has produced a cultural narrative of crime that is less reliant on data and more reliant on culture.

Our new administration has, thus far, seemed to put the cart before the horse. Rather than using data to inform its positions, the administration’s narrative informs the data it presents.

This has been evident in the administration’s attempts at justifying blatant lies about the size of the inauguration crowd or voter fraud, as well as their attempts to put EPA studies up for political review. The same is true for crime, where ideas such as the Ferguson effect and a nationwide crime crisis are common perceptions backed by questionable data.

These perceptions are based around significant spikes in crime in recent years. The 16.4% rise in homicides for 2015 was largely due to increases in large cities, causing President Trump to identify the problem as inner-city crime. The increase is certainly eye-opening when analyzing short-term patterns in violent crime, but critics have pointed out that the increase comes after decades of decline in crime rates. When Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton took tough-on-crime approaches, the nationwide crime rate was far higher than it is today.


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President Obama’s push for police reform is, in the eyes of the current administration, directly responsible for this increase. President Trump has repeatedly mentioned a “war on cops” as a key factor in rising violent crime, promoting the idea of a “Ferguson effect” in which scrutiny of policing has led officers to withdraw from crime-fighting out of fear. To solve the problem, the new administration will be full-throated supporters of police nationwide, and try to tamp down criticism of cops. This narrative is much more cultural than analytic. Proponents of this vision rely heavily on attacking police reform efforts as indicative of a larger problem with progressive culture. If you subscribe to that notion, then the idea of a Ferguson effect makes sense, even if the data to support it is less than convincing.

Trump’s approach to Chicago fits this larger pattern. The data certainly supports the fact that violent crime is a problem there, a fact acknowledged by both the Obama and Trump administrations. Where the two differ is in the perceived causes and solutions for the violence. According to President Trump, the crime spike is a result of officers being “overly politically correct,” a problem which he said was “easily fixable”. When pressed for a solution, he called on the police to be “tougher and stronger and smarter”. Again, the narrative is a cultural one, with evidence showing that tough-on-crime policies are relatively ineffective in curbing violent crime.

Alternative Explanations

Beyond establishing a plausible narrative of why a problem occurs and how to solve it, theories of crime must also address alternative explanations. Critics of the Obama administration’s stance on policing frequently argue that the tactics in question are necessary for crime-fighting and breed unnecessary discontent. DOJ investigations have largely accounted for these criticisms with a number of analytical strategies. Investigations have compared stop rates with rates of arrest or contraband seizure, have compared practices between different areas of a city, have analyzed rates of dropped charges, and have sampled police databases at random to account for the levels of crime that occur. These measures consistently show that, in departments where unconstitutional practices are found, unlawful police action cannot be explained away as a legitimate crime-fighting measure. And to address claims that investigations sow anger and resentment, reports will often detail how tensions have existed for decades as a direct result of unlawful police practices.

All in all, investigations into police misconduct by the Obama Justice Department have thoroughly debunked their major criticisms.

Alternative explanations abound for the causal link asserted by the Trump administration. As mentioned, studies have shown that evidence of a “Ferguson effect” is inconsistent, and evidence that it is responsible for a rise in crime is largely anecdotal. Many people have noted that an increase in crime may be due not to a withdrawal from police, but a withdrawal from the community. As the Chicago investigation mentioned, CPD has an alarmingly low clearance rate for homicides, and the public is highly skeptical of the police after years of misconduct. And with data showing that 911 calls drop after incidents of police brutality, many have claimed that unlawful police actions eroded the trust of their communities, decreased the number of people willing to cooperate with police crime-fighting, and made cities more dangerous. In addition, many criminologists adhere to theories that identify poverty, lack of opportunity, and urban stratification as the primary causes of crime, with other factors far less important.

The Obama administration’s investigation into Chicago’s policing revealed  a methodical attempt to identify a problem, its causes, and its solutions. The report’s empirically based arguments were consistent with similar investigations by Obama’s Department of Justice, which put forward extensive evidence to support its conclusions. The Trump administration has, so far, tended the opposite direction when it comes to crime. In criticizing reformers and blaming a recent crime spike on their scrutiny of police, Trump has turned the issue of crime into a cultural battle. Rather than basing his arguments in date, his general push is against political correctness. As the transition between the two administrations continue, it remains to be seen how the new administration’s views will affect policy and the country at large.


Brendan Kennedy is a senior Political Science and Spanish major at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas. His research focuses on police-community relations in San Antonio, Texas and around the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.


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