With urban crime nationwide undergoing a decade-long decline, Chicago sticks out like a sore thumb, with its record homicides and rising crime rates over the past few years. The chaos in Chicago is particularly troubling given that Chicago is the home base of President Obama and elected as mayor a former White House chief of staff who was essentially hand-picked by the Obama administration.
The president has been outspoken about other national tragedies, including the Sandy Hook school shooting and the Trayvon Martin case. So have black leaders such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But up until last February, the president had been curiously silent about the epidemic of crime and violence plaguing his own backyard. Some believe Mr. Obama’s hand was forced by the publicity surrounding the shooting death of teen Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago less than a week after she performed as a majorette cheerleader at the president’s second inauguration.
When the president finally addressed the people of Chicago last winter, he used the opportunity to champion his flailing gun control legislation — with a rhetorical call for the parents of gun violence to have a vote on the congressional committees considering the new bills. Chicago already had some of the most draconian gun laws in the country, and the national legislation pushed by the president to regulate the sale and ownership of assault weapons would do relatively little to curb gun violence in the city, where over 90 percent of the homicides and other crimes involving a gun are committed with unlicensed handguns — not assault rifles.
The president, stating the obvious, did note that gun control alone would not be a solution to Chicago’s escalating crime rates. Homicides in Los Angeles and New York, cities of roughly similar size to Chicago, have been falling steadily and are near decade-long lows. The president did mention the responsibilities of families and communities to use their own resources to stem the violence. He pointed to endemic problems such as unemployment and lack of male role models as causal factors that the community needed to address within itself. It bears mentioning that these problems are not unique to Chicago either.
But what the president failed to mention when comparing the other cities to Chicago was the difference in leadership. Both Los Angeles and New York had major problems with civic corruption — rampant police corruption in particular — during the late 1990s. The Rampart scandal in south Los Angeles and other events, culminating with the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson trial, forced Los Angeles officials to deal head-on with official corruption and put in place structures to build better relationships with the communities police serve.
Similarly, in New York, various official mandates made priorities of community relations, putting cops on the beat and getting to know communities. Although controversial, New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy could not have succeeded without significant community support. The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations sent a clear signal to the communities that they would police in a tough and fair way and would hold corrupt officials accountable rather than turn a blind eye.
Chicago politics over the past decade has been notorious for its corruption scandals, beginning with the aftermath of the first Obama election. Not only was the Democratic governor convicted of trying to sell Mr. Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, but Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., son of the civil rights icon, was also convicted of official corruption and is serving a lengthy prison sentence for his crimes. While to some these may seem like isolated incidents, the inability to police the city and stem the tide of crime and drugs in the midst of a national urban resurgence seems to point to systemic leadership problems.
Chicago is a city where policy is highly centralized, with strong executives, including Mayor Richard M. Daley and the current incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, tightly controlling the city agencies, including the police department. Unlike other cities of similar size, the chief of police is politically accountable to the mayor. The extent to which political considerations interfere with good policing may provide a clue to the crime anomaly in Chicago.
The president is absolutely right. The solutions to Chicago’s violence are rooted in the community. But they are also rooted in leadership. The dismal results on crime — despite draconian gun laws — point to a disconnect between the leadership and the communities they serve. If people in communities do not trust police, if they see their city as being a bastion of political corruption, they are less and less likely to work with police and other government agencies to reduce crime. No one wants to stick his neck out when the political regime is seen as a part of the problem. One only need look to nearby Detroit for a textbook case of how official corruption helped destroy a city that was already suffering socioeconomic challenges.
To really address the problems of violence in his own hometown, President Obama is going to have to decide which constituency he cares more about offending — the community that he professes to love or the entrenched political machine that gave birth to him and fueled his rise. The president is fond of his refusal to accept false equivalences — meaning trade-offs. He often wants to have his cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, when it comes to solving the most intractable major crime problem in the U.S., he can’t have it both ways.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.