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David Vognar Headshot

Reducing Crime Through Policing and Employment

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In a recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll, less than half of Chicago voters said they approve of the way Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fighting crime. The Tribune reported that homicide is up 53 percent this year compared to the first four months of 2011 and shootings have climbed 20 percent. Black voters especially soured on Emanuel's crime-fighting efforts; only 37 percent approved compared to 42 percent who disapproved. The poll presents an interesting point of departure to think about why Emanuel's main strategy of increasing beat patrols in high-crime neighborhoods and other administration stratagems may be ineffective in seriously reducing crime by themselves.

To say that Emanuel is insincere in his desire to stem the tide of violence that grips so many of Chicago's neighborhoods ignores Emanuel's earnest efforts to increase the number of beat officers, which he did by 1,000. Yet some criticize Emanuel for placing budget reduction over citizens' safety; Emanuel has not hired an appreciable number of officers to help reduce crime, instead shifting officers from administrative duties to street duties. And there is reason to doubt whether the strategy of simply having more police on the street will truly stop violence and crime based on the preliminary data coming out of the Chicago Police Department.

Another strategy the CPD is trying under Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is the Violence Reduction Strategy, the brainchild of criminologist David M. Kennedy. This tactic emphasizes reducing retaliatory violence, mostly through working with gangs, and attempting to reduce imprisonment for minor crimes. Kennedy lays out his ideas in the book Don't Shoot, which received critical acclaim. In the book, Kennedy writes on the scourge of imprisonment: "It has become an independent source of terrible damage, like racism or terrible schools or official neglect or vanishing jobs. It is the one thing that will prevent anything else from working, make meaningless all of our aspiration for better schools and economic development and community uplift." Thus, Kennedy's goal, now being implemented in three high-crime districts in Chicago is to prevent incarceration for minor crimes and focus on preventing shootings. Yet the city's inability to reduce crime appreciably speaks to some of the limitations of this strategy when it is not used in tandem with a ramped up effort at economic development and community uplift.

Kennedy dismisses the idea that alleviating social problems should dominate in the solution to inner city violence and favors focusing on stanching the actual violent behavior itself, which is a fair enough position to hold. Yet even Kennedy documents how community leaders and resource coordinators working in his program helped dangerous criminals find jobs as a way to redirect their energies into something productive. And one wonders whether an equally strong commitment to helping people in the inner city find steady work would increase the positive results seen so far from his program in other cities.

Indeed, the lack of employment opportunities looms large as a factor influencing crime. As William J. Wilson described in his seminal book When Work Disappears, a major reason for the discrepancy between violent behavior among whites and blacks after adolescence is joblessness. He cites a study by Delbert Elliott of the University of Colorado and writes, "A large proportion of jobless black males do not assume adult roles and responsibilities, and their serious violent behavior is therefore more likely to extend into adulthood." Wilson avoids sounding like Newt Gingrich (who recently claimed young people in the inner city "literally have no habit of showing up on Monday") because he recognizes that these cultural problems are driven by economic ones.

Emanuel and the City of Chicago recognize, to an extent, that employment reduces crime rates. Along with Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Emanuel announced in April that the One Summer Chicago program will attempt to employ 17,000 young people summer jobs. The explicit reason for the program is that it "will... keep Chicago's youth safe this summer." However, little is being done to provide long-lasting, stable jobs that increase a community's stability.

With some of the money that was freed up to start the employment program, Emanuel also announced that he will hire 50 more police officers to work in neighborhood patrols. While 50 more police officers may not make the biggest difference in Chicago's violent crime epidemic, the hiring being coupled to the employment effort presents a good reminder that employment cannot be ignored in fighting crime and must be joined with policing efforts.

With today's anemic economy and political friction, broad-based efforts to promote jobs in the inner city are not considered realistic. In the '30s, there were many federal work programs and there was even an effort made to pass the Black-Connery Thirty Hour Work Week Bill, which would have given the federal government the authority to limit the amount of hours people could work. The idea was to stop firings and share the workload among more people, especially those out of work. Until creative ideas, perhaps as bold as those that worked in the last Depression, are revisited to target people in America most subject to chronic unemployment, policing efforts alone are unlikely to do much besides temporarily stop the bleeding, if they are fortunate enough to do that.