In 2016, the number of homicides in Chicago jumped by 58 percent year over year. Why? Most social scientists have struggled to reach any firm conclusions. But in a speech on Tuesday in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed he’s found the smoking gun in a study by former federal judge Paul Cassell and economist Richard Fowles: It’s called the “ACLU effect.” Liberal police reform, this theory insinuates, is deadly business. Is Sessions right? Should we really be scared of the ACLU? No. The “ACLU effect” is a mirage.
Cassell and Fowles attribute the homicide spike to a drop in stop-and-frisk activity by the Chicago Police Department, which they tie, in turn, to a deal between Chicago and the ACLU requiring officers to document street stops more thoroughly. The agreement aimed to create a reservoir of evidence for determining whether stops are unjustified or discriminatory. The theory behind “the ACLU effect,” then, is that requiring officers to collect all this data slowed them down nearly to a halt. “If you want crime to go up,” Sessions scoffed, “let the ACLU run the police department.”
CPD’s street-stop activity did plummet by about 75 percent in late 2015—from around 40,000 stops per month to 10,000—as homicides and other gun crimes broke sharply upward. But that doesn’t mean the decline in street stops caused the homicide spike. For one thing, other crimes in Chicago didn’t jump nearly as much when stops slowed down. So Cassell and Fowles need some theory for why street stops, when conducted en masse, were depressing gun violence but not other crimes—such that, when stop and frisk dropped, gun crimes alone shot up. They don’t have one. In fact, other research suggests that when proactive policing slows down, we might, if anything, expect a greater increase in property crime than violent crime.
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