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In Chicago, High Crime Leads to a Mayor’s Downfall

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 31: Police investigate the scene where as many as 14 people were reported to have been shot on October 31, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Three juveniles were among those reported to have been wounded in the drive-by shooting, according to published reports. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America)

Crime, crime, crime. Also: crime. If there’s one issue responsible for the surprising downfall of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot — who this week became the city’s first incumbent to lose reelection in four decades, after failing to advance out of a primary round — it’s public safety. Here’s hoping other big-city mayors get the message.

Chicago’s recent plight is hard to overstate. Already in 2023, more than 70 people have been slain. That follows a surge in gun violence during the pandemic, with more than 800 people killed in 2021 and nearly 700 last year. Total serious crime rose by more than 33% from 2019, when Lightfoot took office, to 2022. 

These infractions go beyond garden-variety urban nuisances. Serious gang violence remains a plague. Organized criminal groups have brazenly looted retail stores across the city, including in the main shopping district. Carjackings, muggings and shootings have become all but routine. Predominantly Black neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the chaos.

Ominously, a growing number of big businesses — including Boeing Co. and Tyson Foods Inc. — have been fleeing the city. Ken Griffin’s Citadel LLC, headquartered in Chicago for decades, pulled out last year after several employees were victimized by crime. “There is a general sense out there that our city is in crisis,” said Chris Kempczinski, head of McDonald’s Corp., last year. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to operate a global business out of Chicago and Illinois.”

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, isn’t entirely to blame for this disorder. For one thing, Kimberly Foxx, the local state’s attorney, has declared that she won’t seek serious charges for thefts of less than $1,000, has dismissed more than 25,000 felony cases (including for murder and other major charges), and at times has seemed to be almost inviting serious crime.

Yet Lightfoot hasn’t done much to help. Although she opposed “defunding” the police, her 2021 budget shrank the force by eliminating hundreds of vacancies. Total officers declined from 13,302 when she took office to 11,731 in January. Even as crime has soared, the city’s arrest rate has plummeted to just 12.3%. Police investigative stops fell from some 155,000 in 2019 to 69,000 in 2021.

Strategic errors have compounded these problems. A plan to reassign tactical officers to beat patrols caused a significant backlash among supervisors. With manpower limited and gun crimes surging, the city mandated police overtime and canceled days off — even as morale plunged and suicides rose. Lightfoot probably didn’t help matters by calling a police union official a “clown.”

Voters couldn’t help but notice. A recent poll found that crime was by far the most important issue among voters in the mayoral election, cited by nearly four times as many respondents as the economy. Almost two-thirds of voters said they didn’t feel safe. In another survey, a staggering 88% of older Chicagoans said they had considered leaving the city because of crime.

The top vote-getter on Tuesday was Paul Vallas, a former public-schools executive who has been endorsed by the police union, wants more cops on the beat and has made crime the focus of his campaign. He’ll face a runoff contest on April 4. “We’ve got to restore public safety,” Vallas said recently. “Everything proceeds from that.” Well said.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• To Stop Urban Crime and Disorder, Read Hobbes: Adrian Wooldridge

• What’s Dangerous Is America’s Lack of Crime Data: Matthew Yglesias

• New York City Is a Lot Safer Than Small-Town America: Justin Fox

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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