Chicago, IL

Privatizing the police force - a dangerous new trend in law enforcement.

Jim Ryan

How politics forced Chicago into a vigilante-style of justice
Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

On December 22, 2021, in a desperate attempt to control the massive gun violence in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked Attorney General, Merrick Garland to detail ATF agents to the city for six months , “with all delivered haste,...” In addition to agents, the Mayor also requested an undisclosed number of federal prosecutors and marshals to help with the anticipated increase in arrests and court cases.

The mayor was not the only elected official that was struggling with the unrelenting violence in the city. Brian Hopkins, a Chicago alderman representing the Bucktown community, hired a private security firm to combat the criminal activity in his ward that increased more than 79% over the previous twelve months.

The alderman’s new policing strategy was particularly disturbing to local authorities because a program of this size had never been implemented before and there was concern that many of the recruits would lack proper training and supervision.

These two events are not unrelated. There is a growing trend across the country that involves local politicians looking for alternative ways to protect their constituents. A combination of the ‘defund police’ movement and an incredible uptick in all levels of crime are just two reasons cities are desperately looking for additional crime prevention strategies.

One question stands out, is Chicago unique, or will other big cities be forced to engage similar tactics and ultimately replace the police departments with an independent security firm?

Chicago violence is uncontrollable - the city becomes a political flashpoint
Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

Violent crime in Chicago was steadily rising for more than a decade and at the start of 2020 the city had the distinction of having the most homicides and shootings of any city in the country.

Another, almost incomprehensible statistic, was the fact the overall crime rate increased 164% in 2020!

Throughout the summer of 2020 the newscasts were dominated by reports of shootings and carjacks across the city. On one June weekend there were 106 shooting victims reported and a few weeks later ,over the 4th of July, there were another 89 shootings with multiple children injured.

The city had become a war zone and it wasn’t long before this relentless violence became a pivotal debate issue in the 2020 presidential election.

The Trump administration creates a new criminal justice system.

President Trump positioned himself as the ‘ law and order’ president and had previously authorized Attorney General Barr to send Homeland Security agents to Portland to help contain the riots.

As the violence spread across more than a dozen big cities, the president and the AG launched Operation Legend in July 2020, and ‘surged’ agents to key cities across the country to help local authorities.

Chicago was, from the start, a primary target of Operation Legend and, despite a good deal of initial pushback, the Chicago mayor finally agreed to allow 200 'federal police’ to be deployed in support of local justice departments.

The new reality in local crime prevention

The deployment of federal law enforcement officers to Chicago is significant for two reasons. First, the program established a precedent for using federal resources to deliver a city's local criminal justice system.

Second, the operation was successful, ( Murders dropped by 50% in less than six months) and clearly demonstrated the need for the rapid deployment of hundreds of law enforcement resources.

The stark reality of the new wave of organized criminal activity is that local agencies simply do not have the resources or the funds to fight back. As Mayor Lightfoot explained in a press conference in October, the city “can’t arrest it’s way '' clear of the problem.

Politics forces Chicago, and the country, into a vigilante-style of law enforcement

Politics played a pivotal role in Chicago’s decision to move to an independent security force.

When Operation Legend was terminated by the Biden administration on February 1st, 2021., the city of Chicago immediately lost more than 400 federal police that were assigned to various state and local law enforcement agencies.

As the gun violence increased to record levels throughout the summer of 2021, the Chicago mayor continued to press the Biden administration for a program that would replace the federal support.

Inexplicably the administration could offer nothing more than a vague commitment to deliver a ‘strike force’ to replace the terminated federal agents.

Unfortunately, given the reality of present-day politics, even that was abandoned before the end of the year.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the reason the Biden administration did nothing to help resolve the escalating crime in the city. However, in December of 2021 there were several trillion dollars in spending bills deadlocked in Congress and, with the midterms coming up, it’s unlikely the administration wanted to take on anything as volatile as the Chicago gun control violence.

Without the possibility of federal help, the mayor was left with one last desperate Christmas plea for help and the Buckhead community moved ahead with their own independent policing program.

Now the attention will turn to more than a dozen large cities that are struggling with record homicide and will undoubtedly look to implement solutions similar to the program that has proven so successful in Chicago’s Bucktown Community.

Privatizing law enforcement - a potentially dangerous experiment

There is a significant danger to this ‘do it yourself’ crime prevention strategy. If too much policing responsibility is shifted to the private sector there is the risk of altering the fundamental duties of law enforcement.

The Bucktown Neighborhood Association has redefined the traditional concept of a security guard. Instead of being assigned to parking lots, churches or schoolyards, off-duty police officers will be patrolling a large segment of the community in marked cars

At the outset of this strategy, there is not much to distinguish the security guards employed by P4 and the regular police officers.

The security firm immediately becomes an extension of the police force, because most of them are, in fact, police officers.

Local officials are concerned about the lack of supervision and structure. The Bucktown Neighbors Association has refused to provide any specific information about the program except for the fact their security guards will not be given authority to arrest or search any suspects. Instead, if they see a crime in progress, they will dial a 911 number.

Independent law enforcement simply redistributes the violence to adjacent communities.

Since the private security firm started their patrols there has been a noticeable reduction in shootings and carjacks specific to the Bucktown neighborhood. However, an examination of city-wide crime reports clearly indicate this strategy has not eliminated gun violence, it has simply moved the most severe criminal activity to nearby neighborhoods.

If this aspect of the privatization strategy continues the impact will be devastating.

Only wealthy communities, like Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, will have the funding required to hire full-time law enforcement companies. As other affluent wards move to privatize their law enforcement the strategy will continue to drive the crime into neighborhoods with limited police support.

In other words the poorer wards throughout the city.

Cities will immediately be divided into the have and the have-not which will further divide the country along racial and economic lines. In the worst-case scenario, the poorest communities will be forced to rely on volunteers and deploy a dangerous vigilante style of law enforcement.

Fixing the problem will require more than just money. It will require a concerted effort on the part of federal and state legislatures to develop a bi-partisan law enforcement strategy on a national level.

Unfortunately in today’s political climate that level of cooperation is unlikely.

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Chicago, IL

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