Laura Washington: Crime in Chicago has become ‘our’ problem. How do we tackle it?

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Chicagoans are a diverse and feisty bunch, but these days, we are all concerned about crime and public safety.

Violent crime is the grave, existential quandary facing cities across the nation. And no one seems to know how to stop it in 2023.

“Americans are more likely now than at any time over the past five decades to say there is more crime in their local area than there was a year ago,” a Gallup survey taken ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms found.

According to the Gallup poll: “The 56% of U.S. adults who report an increase in crime where they live marks a five-percentage-point uptick since last year and is the highest by two points in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1972.”

In a poll of 700 likely Chicago voters conducted in mid-November, more than 70% of voters named crime and public safety “as their No. 1 or No. 2 most important issue, with no other issue coming close,” WTTW-Ch. 11 News reported.

The survey was commissioned by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150. That union is backing U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García in the Feb. 28 mayoral election.

Crime was a scorching controversy in the 2022 Illinois governor’s race, as Republicans raged that Democrats were soft on crime. The GOP lobbed brutal attacks at the SAFE-T Act, warning that the legislation would jeopardize safety.

Republican GOP gubernatorial nominee Darren Bailey repeatedly labeled Chicago a “hellhole.” He told reporters that we are suffering from a crime wave reminiscent of the movie “The Purge.”

“Chicago is living the purge, when criminals ravage at will and cops stand down,” he declared.

Other fearmongers argue that lax immigration policies, criminal justice reform and anti-police sentiment are jeopardizing our safety. Meanwhile, gun advocates embrace their weapons as a precious right, despite the growing epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings.

All the candidates vying to replace Mayor Lori Lightfoot are talking big about fighting crime. Lightfoot and Chicago police Superintendent David Brown argue that homicides and shootings have declined in recent months. Their critics respond that street violence remains at unacceptable levels.

Lightfoot’s opponents vow, if elected, to fire Brown. The superintendent’s performance has been a disappointment, and many wonder why Lightfoot did not replace him when she had the chance. But dump Brown? Then what? Even a big-city police superintendent cannot solve all the complex factors fueling the mayhem on our streets.

Pick your poison: civil unrest following the police murder of George Floyd, the historic disruption caused by the pandemic, decades of economic disinvestment in communities of color, plummeting morale in law enforcement, deep mistrust between the police and community, and the wide availability and abuse of guns.

Some of these ills have plagued us for years, some decades. Yet we are further away than ever from solutions.

There is one sliver of hope for 2023. Concern about crime is no longer limited to the economically challenged, underresourced communities on the city’s South and West sides.

When people were dying in Black and brown neighborhoods, it was someone else’s problem. Now shootings, armed robberies and carjackings have descended on neighborhoods once considered “safe.” Crime is invading the South Loop, Gold Coast, North Michigan Avenue, River North, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Bucktown.

Now it’s “our” problem.

An endless succession of Chicago mayors, police chiefs and other city leaders have bemoaned for decades the flow of illegal guns into Illinois. They have pointed to the hundreds of gun victims who die every year because of the accessibility of guns.

Then, at a July Fourth parade, a young man allegedly used an assault-style weapon to fatally shoot seven people and wound dozens more in north suburban Highland Park.

Now it’s “our” problem.

Propelled by the outrage over Highland Park, legislators will soon consider Illinois House Bill 5855, which would ban assault-style weapons, raise the minimum age to obtain a firearm owner’s identification card to 21 from 18, increase resources to enforce red flag laws and stop the influx of illegal weapons into Illinois.

The danger has come to every neighborhood, city and village.

How do we vanquish enemy No. 1?

James E. Gierach, a retired Chicago-area attorney, former Cook County prosecutor and drug policy reformer, has a thought. He wrote me recently with a fresh take on the crime problem.

“Has the removal of marijuana from drug dealer shelves (about $1.5 billion in recreational marijuana sales a year in Illinois) substantially contributed to the rise in carjackings, catalytic converter theft, expressway shootings, smash and grab crime, and armed robberies in neighborhoods unfamiliar with such crime?” he asked.

“In other words, has marijuana legalization significantly contributed to the rise of other financially motivated crime?”

That is one question worth investigating in 2023.

Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at LauraLauraWashington@gmail.com.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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January 2, 2023 at 08:50AM

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