US cities hope crime strategies keep homicide numbers dropping and prevent summer surge
Fri, May 26, 2023 5:08 PM
By KATHLEEN FOODY, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — An expected bump in violent crime this summer has mayors and police officials around the U.S. rolling out familiar strategies of making officers more visible and engaging with community groups, in some cases leaning on civilians to enforce curfews and keep the peace.
Chicago is among the U.S. cities under scrutiny following a mayoral race that focused on public safety in response to demands for change. Violence often surges during summer months, so this holiday weekend will undoubtedly ramp up pressure on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new administration to deliver short-term improvement along with the long-term strategies that the former union organizer advocated while campaigning to lead the nation’s third-largest city.
“It’s going to take all of us, not just the police, not just city government, to ensure that our communities can live and thrive in peace and safety,” Johnson said at a lakefront press conference promoting the city’s Memorial Day weekend strategy.
Most large U.S. cities are reporting fewer homicides this year, according to data collected by the Council on Criminal Justice, which created a Crime Trends Working Group this spring in hopes of providing more real-time information on crime.
The shift is a tentative reprieve following those spikes that began in 2020 and began to come down last year. The totals remain far higher than pre-pandemic reports and are “cause for serious concern but not for panic,” said Thomas Abt, founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland.
“Where cities are seeing success, they’re generally investing in a balanced approach that includes policing but ... also supports community-based approaches,” Abt said. “They have recognized the need for enforcement but also emphasize prevention and intervention.”
Officials in Cleveland; Newark, New Jersey; and Philadelphia have announced summer plans to make officers more of a visible presence in locations where violent crimes have happened, while also promoting community efforts to prevent violence and provide alternative activities.
In Baltimore, city officials — not police officers — will enforce curfews on teenagers starting Friday and continuing through Labor Day weekend. The controversial policy has long been on the books but rarely enforced.
“We are going back to the old days,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in announcing the summer enforcement, after two teens were wounded as hundreds gathered on a Sunday night in the city’s popular Inner Harbor district.
That shooting in April, which unfolded while officers were trying to break up a fight at the scene, added to a significant spike in youth violence, which has persisted even as overall shootings and homicides trend downward in Baltimore.
According to Scott’s plan, non-law enforcement staff will approach children and teens violating the curfew policy on weekend and holiday nights. First, they’ll encourage kids to go home, but if that doesn’t work, the children will be brought to a youth engagement center that provides a supervised environment where they can hang out.
In Detroit, federal prosecutors are expanding efforts to help local police this summer by taking armed carjacking cases and business robberies in high-crime areas, in addition to certain gun crimes. Federal convictions typically bring longer sentences.
“The most dangerous people will be prosecuted immediately in federal court,” U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison said Wednesday.
Following a half-dozen shootings — including one fatality — in the downtown Detroit area over one weekend in April, Police Chief James White instituted a crowd control strategy including increased police presence. Curfews for minors also will be enforced.
In Chicago, mayors face annual pressure to demonstrate a proactive approach to violent crime ahead of Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff to warm weather and summer events where crowds gather.
Johnson promised to move away from a policing-first strategy as he took office at the start of May, but he’s also distanced himself from calls to cut money for policing. He chose a retired department veteran as interim police chief.
Federal data shows that Chicago’s homicide rate remains lower than other Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Detroit, with 211 killings reported so far this year, lower than the same period in 2022 and 2021.
Johnson’s holiday weekend strategy includes making officers a visible presence, and even having them check bags at crowded beaches, parks and events. Police rushed to Chicago's North Avenue Beach on Friday afternoon after a report of gunshots following a large fight. The department said one juvenile was in custody but didn't provide more information. No injuries were reported.
Philanthropic and business groups have donated to anti-violence groups organizing events aimed at young people. And the state of Illinois has authorized a team of 30 “peacekeepers” — not police — who have training and experience in deescalating conflict, to roam Chicago aiming to prevent outbreaks of violence.
Community groups with similar strategies have operated for years across Chicago, focusing on specific neighborhoods or blocks with a history of violence. State officials said their team would be mobile and able to respond anywhere, including downtown, where large gatherings of teens during a warm April weekend ended with several shootings and other violence.
Norman Livingston Kerr led a Chicago anti-violence organization before he became assistant deputy mayor for public safety under Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot. He now consults with cities and nonprofits to develop anti-violence strategies that rely on deescalation or intervention. He’s encouraged by signs that the city and state are committing long-term resources to efforts such as the peacekeepers program.
“This violence intervention work, it can take time for people to see it work and believe in it,” Kerr said. “I’m not going to dwell on the fact it took years to happen; I’m going to say this is a new day.”
Johnson has promised to give a variety of community organizations a larger role in his administration’s public safety strategy and devoted much of Thursday’s city presentation to promoting plans for basketball tournaments, neighborhood barbecues and karaoke contests.
Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, said her organization has worked to prevent crime around a South Side intersection for nearly 10 years using “positive loitering.” This weekend is no exception, with a neighborhood barbecue and other activities planned.
“We built a community center, our pop-up community center, in a vacant lot,” Manasseh said. “And since then we’ve seen crime drop astronomically. And we feel like that can happen anywhere.”
Associated Press writers Lea Skene in Baltimore and Corey Williams and Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.