The Chicago Police Department has been under a national microscope since video footage, released last year, showed one of its officers firing more than a dozen bullets at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Prosecutors charged the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with murder on the same day the recording was released over the objections of city officials. Intense protests followed, the city’s police superintendent was dismissed, and the Justice Department announced an investigation of the Chicago police force.
This week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel — shrugging off recommendations made by the city’s police board — selected Eddie Johnson, the department’s chief of patrol, as the new interim police superintendent. Johnson, a Chicago native who has been on the force for more than a quarter of a century, takes over the nation’s second-biggest local law enforcement agency as it faces a dip in officer morale and a surge in violence that the department called “unacceptably high” in a statement Friday.
Violence is occurring at levels unseen for years. In the first quarter of 2016, 141 people were killed, up from 82 last year, according to police department data. The number of shootings surged to 677 from 359 a year earlier. The city is on track to have more than 500 killings this year, which would make this just the third year since 2004 that Chicago topped that figure.
Johnson said Friday that the department “will remain tireless in its efforts to hold criminals accountable for their actions.” The department says most of the increase in violence stems from gang members using illegally acquired guns and is largely geographically clustered around the city’s southern and western portions. (The city has also reported spikes in other crime categories across the board, including sexual assaults, robberies, batteries and thefts.)
This year is on track to far outpace the city’s number of killings in 2015, which is a particularly worrisome fact considering that Chicago had more murders that year than any other city in the United States, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Other large cities that saw increases in killings last year have not seen jumps as extreme as Chicago’s this year. The Los Angeles Police Department said that as of last week, there had been 67 homicides, up from 54 last year. Philadelphia said it had 63 homicide victims through Thursday, up from 62 a year ago. In New York, police reported a decrease — 60 murders as of March 20, down from 75 a year earlier.
Nationwide, there was a small uptick in violent crime last year, with murder rates going up in some of the largest cities.
However, in Chicago and across the country, these figures still trail what the nation saw in recent decades. Between 1991 and 1995, there were at least 800 murder victims in Chicago each year. The number began declining in the mid-1990s and has not approached that level since. As the Brennan Center noted in an analysis last fall of crime in the nation’s largest cities, even though killings rose in 2015, “murder rates are still at all-time historic lows.”
In Chicago, the police department pointed to glimmers of hope while releasing grim crime statistics on Friday: Murders were up in March when compared to the same period last year, but not nearly as much as murders were up in each of the two previous months. More gun arrests were made and more investigative stops took place, the department said. Overall, though, there appears to have been a decline in both guns seized and stops made so far this year; DNAinfo reported Thursday that both figures tumbled in the first three months of this year.
There are numerous issues that could be at play, including a fracturing of gangs leading to more conflicts, said Robert M. Lombardo, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. He also said officers in Chicago and other cities may also be feeling hesitant amid protests over policing.
“The officers are just having second thoughts about being aggressive,” said Lombardo, a former Chicago police officer. “You can’t determine a trend with one month’s worth of data, but everyone pretty much expects it to be a long, hot, bad summer and for this to continue.”
Even before the firestorm following the McDonald video, Emanuel was criticized for suggesting that officers had stepped back from policing due to nationwide demonstrations over how police use lethal force.
During a discussion in Washington last fall involving U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and numerous mayors and police chiefs, Emmanuel said: “We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”
The McDonald video went public the next month, following efforts by Emanuel and his office to fight its release. City leaders and protesters called for Emanuel to oust his police chief, Garry McCarthy. Emanuel, a Democrat in a tumultuous second term, initially stood by McCarthy, then reversed course and asked him to resign. Still, public anger remained focused on Emanuel.
Last month, the Chicago Police Board nominated three people to be considered as the next police superintendent. Emanuel ignored their suggestions and, on Monday, said he was making Johnson his third police superintendent in four months. In his announcement, Emanuel asked the Police Board to conduct another search later this year, but the board said Friday that it would wait to see what happens with reports suggesting that the ordinance guiding the selection of superintendents could be changed.
Johnson has numerous things to accomplish on the job. One is reviving the morale of the police force, something Emanuel and the department both highlighted in statements this week. The department said that with Johnson’s appointment, the force has refocused on fighting violence in the streets, beefing up morale and restoring trust in the department.
(The Chicago police union drew sharp criticism this week for hiring Van Dyke, the officer charged with murdering McDonald, to work as a janitor, a decision the union defended as helping an officer who was in financial need because he was suspended without pay. The union’s president did not respond to a request for comment.)
In naming Johnson as interim police superintendent, Emanuel specifically highlighted the veteran officer’s history of fighting crime. His office touted Johnson’s experience as deputy chief of patrol for Chicago’s “Area Central” region, describing how gun-related violence fell by nearly a third in 2013 under Johnson’s leadership and how shootings also declined the following year.
Johnson said Friday that the department will work to fight crime, but he added in a statement that “we all have a part to play in creating a safer Chicago.”
“In the coming weeks and months, I plan on meeting with and listening to a range of Chicagoans – from activists and elected officials to ministers and parents — to find ways that we can come together to build mutual trust and lasting partnerships that will make our streets safer for everyone,” he said.
This story has been updated. First published: 8 a.m.