“What a gorgeous Spring day,” I said to my colleagues as we began our 30-hour shift at a downtown Level 1 Trauma Center.
“Ugh!” they groaned in unison. “We’ll be crazy-busy tonight.”
Chicago and Suburbs have a security problem that’s determining the area’s fate: Murder, crime, violence, intimidation, lawlessness, unaccountability, and administrative paralysis are without question ascendant and widespread here. These terrible forces characterize us both internally (within city/suburban areas) and externally (how the world sees us). The security problem we have in Chicago dominates the collective landscape. It holds the populace hostage. It destroys our peace and prosperity. It is taking the city down.
The problem impacts every aspect of our society, and every social stratum. Most acutely it degrades the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of our lower-income populations. The pain and misery of loved ones, friends, and neighbors lost to the violence and/or crippled by its whims; the daily accounting of neighborhood, work, and school shootings, robberies, and run-ins with outlaws; the consequent neighborhood blight and disinvestment; the functional loss of public spaces and parks; the surrender of public transportation; the stress, fear, emptiness, and bitterness creeping into each corner of one’s life; the generational effect upon children —pervasively traumatized— whose worlds and world-views are influenced and defined by the lawless environment around them, and who adapt to and accommodate the reality they’re presented with making it normal and oftentimes, permanent.
Aside from ruining individuals’ lives and ruining children’s futures, it is also driving away small business (ref: looting and theft), and big industry, both of which find other cities more safe and hospitable to its employees. Also lost is “opportunity cost:” things which could be built and which could evolve in the future, but don’t. These are harder to measure but in a fast-paced world they’re critical to maintain –otherwise we withdraw ourselves from the front tier, and we are left behind.
Criminality, organized and unorganized, has been prominent in Chicago and Suburbs for over a century. Al Capone, for example, did not invent this; he was part of a network already in place, and merely rose to its leadership. The city’s Security problem existed before him and has been a constant feature ever since. So you may ask, “How is it a ‘crisis’ then, when it’s been going on for over a century? What makes things different, now?”
I believe two things make it a crisis and make it different now:
(1) The national political apparatus no longer functions. Like a pair of addicted parents, both national political parties have become self-obsessed, self-destructive, and more captivated by the resonance of their own bloviations, and by the piques of their private grudge-matches, than by fixing the real-world problems the rest of us face. The far-right is fascist, the far left is socialist, and the supreme court has gone rogue. They cooperate on just one single thing: creating a new, worse, USA. And they’re succeeding.
We the people are subject to pure and ceaseless chaos. No help is going to reach us from above. In fact, only anti-help has been coming from above; and if we are going to survive, we as a city, as a region, perhaps as a state, are going to have to save ourselves. It’s a hard reality and a damning one, but the sooner we understand and accept this, the sooner we can begin.
(2) Civic and community support for police, policing, and the criminal justice system have eroded to a highly consequential degree, rendering the city functionally defenseless (or “immunocompromised” in Medical parlance). The security structures (Police, Policing, and Criminal Justice) are critically degraded. That’s where we need to put all our efforts, right now! Because that’s the immediate threat to life. If the security situation is allowed to persist or even worsen, well, we’ve all seen what happens next: peace and prosperity leave the city for dead. It doesn’t take long.
What do we do about it?
After a gunshot to the chest or neck or abdomen, for example, Step 1 in the management process is to first, stop the hemorrhage. Nothing else gets done ahead of that. Nothing else matters ahead of that. The patient is bleeding to death. It sounds simple, but it’s powerful: stop the bleeding. It gives you a little bit of time, enough to plan and execute your next moves. Similarly, for the city which is quite literally being attacked in an analogous way, I submit that the first step in the management is to reclaim order and control of our neighborhoods, schools, highways, parks, and trains.
Ultimately the best solution for that will be to address and remedy the root causes of bad behaviors such as creating better neighborhoods, schools, cultures, climates, and opportunities for our children, so they never join a gang or become a criminal in the first place. But that is a slow-build. It will take many years, many decades. And regardless –and here is the crux of it– none of that can begin until the place is made safe, anyway. It’s not the other way around. Step 1 in this crisis –the first solution– is that we must reassert control. We must create safety. Peace is achieved. We must stop the hemorrhage before it’s too late.
How is it to be done? Prelude: if it were easy, it would have happened already.
Culture of Violence. We must accept that Chicago is our problem to fix. Nobody is going to do it for us; in fact, we’ll need to tune out the rest of the national dialogue, as both sides have gone lost touch with reality. The overall remedy begins with fixing our culture of violence. Like an evil spirit genie conjured up over a century ago and sustained ever since (a malicious “egregore”), this violent culture that belongs to nobody and to everybody at once, that has no shape or form but exerts a sustained, profound influence upon our present and our future, it must be confronted and it must be overcome.
Land of the Free. We cannot adopt the complete and autocratic state-domination approach that China has taken: We have a culture of Freedom. We have a Bill of Rights. We respect the value of the individual. Liberty is at the very center of our Democracy. Whatever we do, we cannot create the invisible cage that China has created. We must do better than that.
Police, policing, and criminal justice. We must develop the best police force and criminal justice system in the country; perhaps in the world. Somebody already has that; weneed it(!), and we need it now. That should be our “moon shot.” Not the opposite. Not the antagonistic approach to policing we hear from city hall. Not the porous approach to dispensing justice we experience when those who commit crimes are released to keep doing so. We can no longer afford to elect people into positions of authority who are reluctant or unable to do their duty to protect us. We as a population need to set this as our collective goal, rank it above other goals, and we must work together to make it a reality.
Investing in the police and making our criminal justice system the most effective in the country, these two improvements are fundamentally necessary to stop our city from cascading into chaos; they are preconditions to the emergence of a better culture. They must be in place before we can drive a new narrative for Chicago; one that evolves out of the century-old legacy of crime and murder for which we are unfortunately known across the world.
We must attract the highest talent to our police force and to our courts of law, and we must learn and adopt the most modern and effective techniques for both. We must make the Chicago Police Academy the envy of every other police department there is, and develop our officers professionally and continuously throughout their career. We must do the same for our attorneys and courts. We must promote the ablest leaders and demote those who are not. We must define valid, reliable, practical standards for policing and adjudicating this complex, international, 21st-century city, and then meet them. Then we must all support our force in what is the most difficult, hazardous, and essential job the city has, and be grateful for and take pride in the peace and prosperity they enable with their work and modern professionalism. And we must care for our police who are injured or traumatized in the line of duty because theirs is a tough and dangerous and never-ending task, and we honor it by caring for them.
I am an ordinary citizen. I very much believe we in Chicago are at an inflection point. Many others do as well. The Chicago streets and trains and schools and shopping centers must get safer or we will soon lose this amazing city. It’s happened to other cities; it will happen to ours. The loss may not happen overnight but by the time we realize that things are beginning to crash we will be too late in the process to reverse it. I believe there is no “war on crime” for us or “war on drugs” or “war against terrorism” that makes any sense, here; there is only the necessary realization that our first priority must be the day-in, day-out safety and security of our citizens, businesses, and institutions and that in the 21st century / digital age / global village in which we all now live, how that is done will be a mix of classic wisdom and common sense (as a primary basis), with a variety of new technologies, ideas, values, and techniques added on top.
Yes, there is much, very much to do on so many other fronts, but we must stop the hemorrhage, first, or there will be no patient left to save.