A Tale of Two Cities

January 25, 2018

I just read two articles that struck a chord in me. It’s a chord that seems to be striking often these days.

Both of these articles, the first from the Chicago Tribune and the second found on the website Law Enforcement Today, are exceptionally researched and written. They lay out facts, figures and realities about law enforcement and community violence. They speculate about the past, present and future in an effort to identify why community violence exists and how to stop it. And both, to some degree, obviously put much of the responsibility on police.

Violence Rising

What prompted the articles is the spike in violence, and, in particular murders, in Chicago and Baltimore over the past three years. The rates in Chicago rival those of the 1990s. For Baltimore? It’s a record for the most murders ever.

39,000 homicides: Retracing 60 years of murder in Chicago in the Tribune by Bentle, Berlin, Marx and Rumore does exactly what the title implies: They analyze the history of murder in the Windy City from 1957 through 2017. They do their best to establish reasons the city averaged over 650 homicides a year during that period.

Many factors are behind the spike,” the authors note, “including access to guns, the fracturing and fractioning of street gangs, and poverty and disinvestment in the most effected communities.”

These conclusions, however, are the familiar, safe, and rarely challenged reasons cited by countless others to explain why violence has been permeating certain communities since the 1960s.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel regularly bemoans the lax gun laws in Indiana and Wisconsin and points to poverty to explain why his city experiences two murders and twelve shootings daily. But guns and poverty don’t answer the question completely. Indiana and Wisconsin have no universal violence problems, despite the number of guns there. As for poverty, if it was a main driver of violence it too would be universal among poor communities and consistent over time. It’s not.

Gangs and territories and “ex-convicts” roaming the streets? A “willingness by criminals to settle disputes with guns”? Yes, the authors address these factors, but they present them much like you might address the weather. It is, as they say, what it is.

The Baltimore article, Community Leader—Bring Back the Cops! by Leonard Sipes is partly a “commentary” from a Baltimore minister who is pleading for a return to proactive policing.

The article discusses the aftermath of the Freddie Gray incident: his death, the arrest and prosecution of six police officers, their acquittals and reinstatement. It also honestly addresses the abuse all Baltimore officers took from members of the community since then.

Sipes writes, “Many American police officers believe that the cops in the Freddie Gray incident did nothing wrong; they suggest that if cops were charged with murder for doing what they do every day, they could be charged as well.”

So the cops stopped being proactive. The result? For the third year in a row Baltimore has had more than 300 murders a year, and there’s no end in sight. I don’t think it’s coincidental.

Sipes holds a post-Masters’ certificate of advanced study from John Hopkins University. He does a nice job trying to come to some sort of resolution between the community and the cops. He is clearly a very intelligent and thoughtful man. But he’s never been a cop. Much of what he believes will work, I believe, will not. And I say that in large part because I have been a cop.

There need to be rules of engagements in every high crime community as to what we want cops to do and how we want them to do it. Let every distressed community spell out what it wants done on their behalf. Let it be in writing.” Sounds great.

But in practice? I once watched a community meeting in one of Chicago’s more violent neighborhoods on television. A reporter at the meeting suggested that the community didn’t want police stopping and frisking on their streets. A mother bristled at the comment. “We want them (police) to do stop-and-frisk,” she said. “We just want them to stop the right people.”

Think about that challenge for a moment.

Sipes continues, “Too many confrontations start out as police enforcing minor traffic or criminal violations. This needs to stop unless communities tell cops otherwise. Let the community tell police when enforcement should change.”

The community does just that when they call dispatch. Most calls are for noncriminal nuisances—speeding autos, loud mufflers, illegal parking, suspicious people hanging around, and so on. Calls from citizens to 9-1-1 describe the community’s wants and needs.

Here’s the thing. There’s a gap between what works in theory and what happens in practice. In theory, people don’t want marijuana laws to be criminal. Unless the people are smoking dope in front of your house where your kids play. Drunk guys passing out? No problem—unless they pass out on your lawn (usually after urinating on it). So the cops get called. Now what?

Sipes mentions a “minor DWI.” What’s that? Deaths from drunk drivers have been drastically reduced over the last 30 years through enforcement and punishment. And still people are killed by drunk drivers rather routinely. Sipes mentions “minor domestic violence.” What’s that? Back in the 80s we went to mandatory arrests on domestics because women refused to sign complaints. We should stop that?


The community has a part to play in reducing crime. The demand over the past six years or so in many communities has been for police to be less proactive and enforce fewer minor crimes. At least that’s what’s said in public. In private, I believe, there’s another story. Most citizens want to live in safe neighborhoods. As for the police, the can’t be hired mercenaries and instead must see themselves, and be seen, as part of the community. I do believe most cops work hard and do good work. Seldom is that recognized. And when a mistake or, heaven forbid, a criminal action is committed by a police officer, the entire profession is demonized. What do you expect would be the reaction by the police, as a whole, of those characterizations?

Bottom line: Suggesting simple solutions to complex problems gets us nowhere (but it makes us feel good). Ditto in the pointing fingers and making blanket accusations. If we want to come together, now might be the time to do it. Otherwise, I’m afraid, more innocents will pay for our refusals.

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