CITY HALL — Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown spent a free-wheeling six-hour special City Council hearing on Friday sticking by his assertion that lenient judges own at least part of the blame for the city’s stubbornly high rates of violent crime, even as multiple aldermen challenged the data underlying his claims.
Nineteen aldermen signed onto a letter last week triggering Friday’s special meeting, saying they wanted the chance to hear directly from Brown about how the department was planning to head off summer violence. But the meeting strayed to a wide range of topics, including police recruitment, department communication with aldermen, the police budget and what was pushing the city to its highest spate of shootings since the 1990s.
Like most of the country’s largest cities, Chicago saw violent crime skyrocket after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Brown and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have pointed to signs in the data that the swell could be leveling off, but shootings and homicides remain higher this year than they were halfway through 2020. At least 90 people were shot in Chicago during the Fourth of July weekend, including two police officers and 6-year-old girl, according to the Tribune.
Brown told alderman during introductory his remarks on Friday that the department is “doing its part in historically unprecedented ways” to fight crime — specifically, by pulling guns off the street. He said Chicago police are on pace to recover a record 12,000 guns by the end of this year.
He then pivoted to the Cook County court system, citing what he called “an explosion of violent offenders being released back into our communities on electronic monitoring.” He listed off multiple examples of arrestees whom judges had released with ankle bracelets, only for them to commit another shooting — in at least one case, after cutting off their bracelet.
“There are too little consequences for violent offenders in our courts,” Brown said. “This explosion of electronic monitoring is harming our city — it’s harming our children.”
Lightfoot and police leaders have been shifting blame onto the county court system since before Brown became the top cop in April 2020. The mayor has amped up her criticism amid the pandemic, calling on Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to bring the criminal court system back to full in-person capacity. The Illinois Supreme Court announced last month that it would resume in-person criminal trials, but not until October.
Some aldermen, like Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41), echoed Brown’s claims, saying the county’s “constant catch and release system” of allowing arrestees to bond out is hurting officer morale. He traced the issue back to Evans’ 2017 order for judges not to charge bonds that exceed arrestees’ ability to pay.
“We’re having charges put on criminals and constantly being dropped, we’re seeing repeat offenders being put back on the street and put on electronic monitors,” Napolitano said. “We’ve had three years where we saw this happening…so we all failed on that.”
But others, like Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22), warned Brown that “the buck needs to stop” with the police department, and “we can’t scapegoat” judges for bonding out potentially violent defendants. He noted that the country’s prison population has increased fivefold since the early 1980s.
“I don’t think we can continue to go down the narrative that ‘lock-em-up and throw away the key’ is going to resolve our issues,” Rodriguez said. “We need to be smart on crime, not just tough on crime.”
The Little Village alderman tied the spike in violence to the pandemic, saying it shows the city needs to spend American Rescue Plan dollars on street outreach programs, job training and rental assistance.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1) brought up a WBEZ report from May that unearthed hacked internal emails from former Deputy Mayor Susan Lee urging top officials in the mayor’s office and police department to drop their talking point that judges were driving a spike in crime. Lee conveyed data showing that “very few folks who bond out actually commit violent offenses with a gun.”
“Are we really seeing there is a correlative connection, not just anecdotal, between bond reform and violent crimes being committed?” La Spata asked Brown.
“’A few people’ is problematic in our neighborhoods,” Brown said. “A few people killed Jocelyn Adams. A few people committed a murder-suicide this month. That few people, for the victim, is everything. We see it in our communities — it is the explanation. Violent offenders need to be in jail.”
Brown also said he had not seen Lee’s emails.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) grew visibly frustrated with Brown’s reversion to citing specific episodes, saying the city “shouldn’t be basing our public safety strategies, shouldn’t be basing our policy, on anecdotal evidence.”
Ramirez-Rosa held up a copy of a report published by Loyola University researchers last year showing that just 3 percent of defendants who were released on bond went on to commit new crimes during their pre-trial release period.
“You’re pushing a bad narrative,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “If you continue to push that narrative, I’m going to have to say, Superintendent Brown, that you’re a liar.”
“I supported you for this position because I thought you were going to be a reformer,” the alderman added. “What I’ve heard instead is the same false narratives and broken talking points that have led to this broken criminal justice system.”
Brown said he had not read the Loyola study but that he would encourage its authors to “come to the South and West Side” and see up-close the effects of murders committed by people out on bond.
Evans’ office has pushed back against Lightfoot’s and Brown’s pushing blame onto the courts. In addition to the Loyola study, his office has also pointed to a study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab that found that of 945 defendants released on electronic monitoring between July 2019 and August 2020, fewer than 5 percent were rearrested while awaiting trial.
“Looking at individual tragic cases in isolation may contribute to the speculation that releasing individuals before trial rather than incarcerating them — whether by placing them on Electronic Monitoring (EM) or other forms of supervision — means an increase in crime,” Evans wrote in a statement Friday. “But a speculation based on isolated cases is not the same as a reality based on a complete picture.”
Still, Lightfoot stood by her and Brown’s stance, saying during a post-meeting news conference on Tuesday that “the fact of the matter is that there are people out on electronic monitoring” who are committing new crimes.
“When somebody has shot up a neighborhood, and they’re released on bond or electronic monitoring within 24 to 48 hours of being arrested, what message does that send to the victims?” Lightfoot said. “We’ve got to acknowledge that there’s a problem, because it is no question in my mind driving some of the surge in violence that we’ve seen in the city.”