Change in Government Must Include Change in Media Practices

The major problem with the crime statistics for the last couple decades in Chicago is that they have been used as tools – by both the police department and the media – to manipulate the public.  Neither has used the statistics responsibly, and over the last several years we have seen an unprecedented misuse of the numbers as both the CPD and the media in an attempt to misinform the public in the direction that best suits their needs.  The Chicago & Cook County criminal justice system and media must rely on statistics derived from long-term analysis and drop the weekend, week, and monthly comparisons that do not inform the pub

Let’s get some things straight:

In Chicago:

  • Crime has plummeted in Chicago over the last 20 years. Homicides are down from the 900s to the low 400s. All other types of violent street crime are significantly down from the highs in the early 1990s.
  • Despite a significant drop since the early 1990s, homicides have failed to drop as low as other large urban centers like New York, LA, and Houston.  This does not mean that homicides are increasing; it just means that they have failed to continue to drop in line with the other large urban centers.
  • Persistent problems with violence against women continue to plague our city, but data kept by the criminal justice agencies make it impossible to know to how prevalent these crimes are.

Nationally:

  • Crime has plummeted in relatively equal numbers throughout the US, despite the fact that the US is covered by 19,000 policing agencies that vary in size from 1-person agencies in rural areas, to 35,000-person-strong urban agencies. This dichotomy also represents significantly different approaches to responding to and preventing crime.
  • It is also important to note that, in general, police scholars are in agreement that random patrol (cops driving around in their cars through their patrol area in a random pattern) provides very little in the way of crime prevention.

Now that we have the facts straight, you might wonder why this is not part of the nightly newscasts in Chicago.  Despite the amazing drop in crime that America has experienced over the last 20 years, the media does not make money off selling you good news because good news does not scare you into tuning in or buying papers; uncontrollable street crime does.  This line also plays right into the hands of the union representing the patrol offices of the Chicago Police Department; the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).  The FOP does not want any discussions about how the police do not prevent crime or that crime is dropping despite the fact that the city has been quietly reducing the number of patrol officers in the city.  Why?  Because then someone might think we don’t need to spend all the money we do on the CPD and maybe turn it to something more beneficial like job creation, drug treatment, mental health treatment, or even tax breaks!

You see, there are immense interests that are hurt by the story of crime reductions.  The media loses circulation and viewers, and the FOP loses members of their union.  At the same time, the press continues to beat a drum with their violence coverage that then strongly impacts the average Chicagoans’ fear of crime.  The odds of a white Chicagoan being the victim of serious street violence in Chicago are quite small, but that is not reflected in the media’s coverage of crime or in how Chicagoans always seem to feel there is a need for more cops in their community.

Now, does this mean Chicagoans should be satisfied with the levels of crime in some neighborhoods in Chicago?  No.  Yet at the same time, they have continued to vote for politicians who put forth policies that guarantee that the current conditions that are the basis for this street violence will continue to exist for years in to the future.  With this reality I cannot see how the average Chicagoan thinks things in these neighborhoods are going to change until they change the way they vote.

All the pooh-poohing about what happens in these areas while the citizens vote for politicians that back programs and policies which rob these communities blind is the epitome of hypocrisy.   It would be nice for white Chicago to ask their Alderman where the money for their nice new park came from in the city budget.  If he mentions TIFs, then there is a good chance their nice rich community is a beneficiary in a great robbery of the poorest of the poor in Chicago.   For my part, CJP’s offices are at Wacker Dr. and Wabash Ave. where there are beautiful potted plants outside that the city changes several times year.  I wonder what child (or community of children) is going hungry today so that I may have these beautiful plants outside my office today.

CPD Gavel PictureThe press’ reliance on useless statistics to scare the public combined with their unyielding efforts to act as an uncritical megaphone for statistics provided by the Chicago Police Department is really sad.  It has gotten to the point where the press is relying on useless statistics from a useless time period to advance either a pro- or anti-police perspective.  Comparing crime statistics over as short a period as a weekend, week, or month is without any reliability.  Crime is influenced by a tremendous number of factors that the media either ignores or has no idea of the role these factors play.  If and when a reporter does know about such a factor – i.e the weather –  they add a line at the end of the report talking about weather differences between the two time periods as a caveat, as if to insinuate that this critical factor is not playing a big role.

Comparing one month to the same month a year ago without taking weather or other issues into account makes any assumptions the reporters or the CPD are making completely worthless.  The problem is the public does not understand this and consequently believe what they see and read; thus police policy and public policy is driven inappropriately, either propaganda from the CPD or lazy and unprofessional reporting by the Chicago media.

If we want change to occur we are going to have to mandate it from both our public officials and our media.  The reality is that our public officials spend much of their time attempting to repair the damage created by the media’s misinformed reporting.  Change in government can only really come in tandem with a change in the level of professionalization of our media.