An Answer to Urban Violence: Take Politics Out of Policing

Eight-year-old Dejore Wilson was murdered in Chicago last week, shot in the back while riding in a car with her mother. Less than 24 hours later, Olga Calderon, a 32-year-old mother of two, was stabbed to death while stocking the shelves at a Walgreen’s drug store in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Later that same week, a U.S. postal worker was shot in the head and in both her legs while on her usual rounds on Chicago’s South Side. 

Did you hear about any of these victims? Chances are you didn’t. So frequent have been the murders of children and other innocent civilians in one of Chicago’s most violent years ever, they are rarely more than local headlines.

Chicago’s problems are not isolated issues. Since the death of George Floyd in May, 550 municipalities witnessed peaceful protests that turned violent, resulting in widespread looting, rioting, and vandalism. Police cars were tipped over and set on fire, officers were pelted with urine and feces, frozen water bottles, bricks and, in one case, a skateboard. The civil unrest has also affected the livelihoods of business owners from Portland to Washington, D.C., and Kenosha to Atlanta. 

Many businesses had to close for prolonged periods; frequently, their insurance policies covered little to none of the damages. The future loss of revenue in these areas is hard to estimate, but it could be enough to bankrupt some cities and turn what were once vibrant tourist destinations and shopping districts into ghost towns. Some family-owned shops will never recover or reopen. 

Twenty city police chiefs across the country have resigned since the civil unrest began four months ago. Most of them were forced out by their mayor, i.e., due to political pressure — not because of incompetence, an inability to lead, or dissatisfaction from the people or their fellow officers. 

Why did this happen? Because of “stand down” orders from mayors like Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, unwilling to expose protesters to the law, and complicit state’s attorneys, like Cook County’s Kim Foxx, unwilling to prosecute them. According to their own statistics, the Chicago Police Department solves only one out of six homicides. Commit a crime in the Windy City and you are almost certain to get away with it. (Although Lightfoot has somehow seen to it that dozens of Chicago’s finest are deployed to her neighborhood, protecting her house around the clock.) 

Most police chiefs, no matter the size of the city they serve, do not want to give their officers an order to stand down. They want safe streets and schools and business districts that know looters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But most large urban police chiefs are selected by the mayor with the confirmation of city councils.  Their jobs are contingent on the mayor’s approval, not the voters’. Sadly, it is the mayor’s will that the police chief must follow, not the will of the people. And the mayors of major urban centers like Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle have communicated directly with their chiefs of police and told them not to make arrests unless absolutely necessary.

What is the answer? To take the politics, and political appointments, out of policing. A sheriff, unlike a city police chief, answers only to the voters — the residents of the community he or she serves — and is therefore liberated to the job without political pressures. Once hired, the police chief should have no direct contact with the mayor, who should have no ability to instruct the chief in how to run his or her department.

The residents of our cities would be better served if the police chief reported to a civilian review board comprised of independent law enforcement officials and specially selected members of the public. The chief should have a yearly contract and should only be removed for cause. The chief should be beholden, in other words, only to his or her peers and members of the community — those that the chief’s decisions most directly affect. 

On a recent visit to Chicago, Attorney General William Barr attributed a recent and modest decline in homicides to the federal government’s “Operation Legend” initiative, a nationwide program meant to stem illegal gun sales and transport of firearms across state lines. Hours after Barr’s press conference there, which should have been a moment of encouragement and unity for police, citizens and elected officials alike, Mayor Lightfoot instead turned the moment political, noting with ire that President Trump would not use Chicago as a “prop” and disputing Barr’s claims about the success of the initiative. Though invited to the press conference, Lightfoot was a no-show, as was the police superintendent, David Brown. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth were also notably absent. A moment of progress and potential for peace was reduced to a moment of posturing. 

And so, tragically, the violence and murder of the innocent will continue. Residents of American cities — large or small — will never be safe, nor will justice genuinely be served so long as the police chief has to answer to a politically motivated mayor who knows little to nothing about law enforcement. It’s time for the politics in policing to end. Otherwise, get used to lawlessness and expect the mayhem to continue and, perhaps, become even worse.

Mark C. Curran Jr. is a former criminal defense attorney, state and federal prosecutor, and the longest-serving sheriff of Lake County, Ill., elected for three consecutive four-year terms. He is currently the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, running in a three-way race against incumbent Dick Durbin and an independent, businessman Willie Wilson.

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