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Trump seeks more stop-and-frisk in Chicago, but experts see little impact

President Donald Trump addresses the International Association of Chiefs of Police at their annual convention Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

As President Donald Trump again set his sights on violent crime in Chicago Monday, criminal justice experts questioned how big of an effect the policies he called for could have on a city where police are already touting significant drops in murders and shootings.

“I know the law enforcement people in Chicago, and I know how good they are. They could solve the problem if they were simply allowed to do their job and do their job properly and that's what they want to do. So, Chicago, we are going to start working with you as of today,” Trump said in a speech to law enforcement officers in Orlando.

The president has made similar pronouncements before, either offering or threatening to send help to Chicago to reduce the city’s distressingly high body count. Last summer, his administration assigned additional federal agents to assist an interagency anti-gang task force there.

Trump’s prescription Monday was for the city to increase use of stop-and-frisk policing, which he claimed was “meant for problems like Chicago.” He added the controversial tactic needs to be “properly applied” but offered no specifics for what that would entail.

Stop-and-frisk policies allow officers to conduct warrantless searches of people on the streets for weapons. Critics allege these tactics often disproportionately target minorities and rarely result in criminal convictions, but law enforcement experts say it is possible to employ them legally.

“To say we want to stop-and-frisk means nothing. It’s who you stop and why you stop them,” said Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Baltimore police officer.

Trump claimed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s support for stop-and-frisk turned the city into one of the safest in the country. Most of the city’s post-1990 drop in crime occurred well before officers stepped up stops, though.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled New York City’s application of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional and discriminatory. After the program was reformed, the city’s crime and murder rate continued to fall, reaching the lowest levels since the 1950s in 2017.

“[Former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg’s prediction was end stop-and-frisk and murder rates will go sky high. That’s just not what happened,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Facing similar allegations of discrimination, the city of Chicago reached an agreement with the ACLU of Illinois in 2015 that requires officers to document every stop. The following year, stops decreased but murders rose by 58 percent.

Despite Trump’s dire claims, Chicago appears to be improving on its own in 2018. Data for the first nine months of this year shows murders are down 20 percent from 2017 and the number of shooting victims is down 18 percent. There have still been more than 400 murders and 1,800 shootings, but police are cautiously optimistic that progress is being made.

“Even someone as clueless as Donald Trump has to know stop-and-frisk is simply not the solution to crime,” a spokesman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Just last week CPD reported there have been 100 fewer murders and 500 fewer shooting victims in Chicago this year, the second straight year of declines — all while we've been making reforms to restore trust with residents.”

Stop-and-frisk programs have been constrained by court rulings, but they are still in place in Chicago and elsewhere at reduced levels. Many studies have attempted to quantify how effective they are and whether the benefits outweigh the cost to the public perception of officers.

“There’s lots of studies in lots of different cities and they all have different methods,” said Wesley Skogan, a professor at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and author of “Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities.”

One study of New York’s application of stop-and-frisk estimated the policy resulted in a 2.5 percent reduction in violent crime. Another concluded deployment of additional officers to high-crime areas cut crime by 12 to 15 percent, but stop-and-frisk made little difference.

However, a study conducted of Chicago by experts at the University of Utah concluded the dramatic 82 percent drop in street stops in 2016 after the ACLU settlement led to 239 additional murders and 1,129 shootings.

“The costs of crime — and particularly gun crimes — are too significant to avoid considering every possible measure for reducing the toll. The evidence gathered here suggests that stop and frisk policies may be truly lifesaving measures that have to be considered as part of any effective law enforcement response to gun violence,” University of Utah professors Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles wrote in the University of Illinois Law Review.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has cited the Utah study on several occasions to defend stop-and-frisk policies, but other experts say their research failed to account for the fallout from the release of a video of Chicago police shooting black teen Laquan McDonald in 2016. Also, the number of murders in the city fell by 16 percent in 2017 and seems to be falling further in 2018 without a significant increase in street stops.

Another concern Skogan raised with the Utah study is it did not consider other community policing tactics officers turned to instead of stop-and-frisk. His research has shown an enormous increase in traffic stops since street stops were scaled back.

“If police aren’t doing one thing, they’re doing another,” he said, adding that he calculated stop-and-frisk produced a 3 percent drop in Chicago’s violent crime rate.

President Trump often singles out Chicago when he speaks of crime and violence, but the city’s problems in recent years were part of a troubling national trend, with the murder rate rising by nearly 11 percent in 2015 and 8.6 percent in 2016.

Initial data for 2017 released by the FBI last week indicates the violence may have leveled off, estimating a 0.2 percent drop in violent crime and a 0.7 percent decrease in murders. Moskos expects the final adjusted numbers will be slightly higher, but he noted some cities like Philadelphia continue to see more killings.

“What that means is it wasn’t a blip, as many people were hoping,” he said, describing the 2017 figures as “better than it was 20 years ago and worse than it was three years ago.”

The rise in murder and crime rates since 2014 coincided with a wave of controversial police shootings of unarmed black men that enraged communities and placed law enforcement tactics under a microscope.

“These were years where communities, especially in a few major cities, felt like they couldn’t trust the police anymore,” Grawert said.

Other experts believe violence has increased because that scrutiny drove officers to be less aggressive and less proactive in fighting crime.

“It seems somewhat obvious to me less policing equals more violence,” Moskos said.

Although national data can be instructive for understanding trends and patterns, Skogan stressed factors that most impact a particular city’s murder rate are often local in nature. In Chicago, he said the specific problem is killings and shootings by young men with guns. Other kinds of crime and homicide have gone down.

“You’ve got to go where the guns are, where they’re available, and more importantly, where people are willing to use them,” he said.

Chicago police have struggled to solve these cases, with clearance rates of 5.5 percent for shootings and 12 percent for homicides. If the public cannot have confidence in the police, those in crime-ridden neighborhoods will be more likely to arm themselves and take matters into their own hands.

“It’s collapsed because of the collapse of trust in the police It’s all about witnesses, bystanders, family members, people looking out windows, giving the police information or not,” Skogan said.

Police in Chicago say improved technology has helped rein in crime, including new strategic decision support centers in station houses that make it easier to direct and coordinate officers. It is too soon to judge how much difference that has made.

“They’re working much harder on the technology,” Skogan said. “To a certain extent on their strategies, but the big push has been technology. Also, moving people around to position them better.”

After testing technology in two high-crime areas in early 2017, police set up surveillance centers to tap into 30,000 government-operated cameras throughout the city and set up sensors that can identify the location of gunshots. The department has also hired nearly 1,000 new officers. According to The New York Times, Chicago police believe reforming and scaling back stop-and-frisk helped improve relations with the community too.

“None of this is magic,” Moskos said. “It’s not ordained by God. If you’ve got cops doing good policing, violence goes down.”

Attorney General Sessions has credited President Trump and his support for law enforcement for the nationwide drop in violent crime in 2017.

“Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice has restored common sense criminal charging and sentencing policies, surged resources to jurisdictions facing some of the highest levels of violence and drug abuse, targeted enforcement efforts against the most violent offenders, and developed innovative approaches to address pervasive crime problems,” he said in a statement last month.

Moskos suspects the Trump Justice Department’s shift away from the investigations of alleged police misconduct President Barack Obama’s administration pursued has had some effect.

“It’s not that they’ve done anything concrete. It’s what they’ve stopped doing,” he said.

Violent crime and murder rates declined through much of Obama’s eight years in office, hitting historic lows in 2014 before spiking in 2015. This was part of a broader downward trend under both Republican and Democratic administrations cutting both figures to half of what they were in the early 1990s, with most of that drop occurring under Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“The great decline in crime from 1992 to 2003 was very important to the country but also in many ways a mystery,” Skogan said.

The Brennan Center conducted an extensive study of exactly why crime declined between 1990 and 2010 and found the answers were “incredibly complex,” Grawert said. That research suggested the trend was fueled by a variety of social, economic, and environmental forces and the implementation of data-backed policing rather than government criminal justice policies or specific presidents.

“The notion that national crime rates would turn on a dime when a new guy got into officedoesn’t hold water with me,” he said.

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