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The ACLU Effect on Crime and Policing

Chicago citizens and police officers have always had something of a tense relationship. The residents of the city have complained of mistreatment from law enforcement due to racial biases; meanwhile, police officers and first responders are desperately trying to keep bad guys off the streets to keep good guys, their stuff, and the city at large safe.

Starting in 2011 with the untimely death of Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement renewed public interest in police brutality and the safety of inner city residents against the force of police who may be entering scenes with ill intentions and racial prejudices. Calls for mandatory body cameras and more transparency during police-civilian interactions that left people dead have taken up a permanent dwelling on social media and at every political rally.

With the tide of public opinion turning against police officers, the prison system, and law enforcement at large, many police precincts are up against steep odds for increasing their budgets during local votes and reminding citizens that they exist to keep streets safe, not to purposefully hurt or terrorize people.

Nonetheless, the ACLU and the Chicago PD struck a once-in-a-lifetime agreement that both sides hoped to benefit from, the former, fewer cases of police misconduct, and the latter, better public support. In particular, the ACLU was interested in putting an end to controversial “stop and frisk” laws that were intended to allow police to be proactive in getting guns and drugs off the streets, but were generally racially biased in execution, leading to numerous court cases. As per the truce, officers have been instructed to meticulously document each and every interaction they have so that a file is prepared if and when the ACLU has to respond to claims of police brutality. Naturally, with the pressure to catalog every traffic stop and stop-and-frisk, the number of both has dramatically decreased.

In a landmark study recently released from the University of Utah, though, researchers Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles blamed what they call the “ACLU Effect” for Chicago’s 58% increase in homicides in 2016, a peak even for the troubled city itself. The former a professor of law and the latter an economist, the two set out to create an econometric model that accounted for all the possible variables that lead to an increase in homicides in the city, and time and time again, they continued to be struck by the “ACLU Effect,” or the fact that increased paperwork lead to an 82% decrease in traffic stops and stop-and-frisks. Naturally, the ACLU has come out staunchly opposed to the study’s findings and note that it’s more important for the police force to function constitutionally than for them to play fast-and-loose with people’s lives.

This isn’t the first time cities have had to evaluate the efficacy of stop-and-frisk policies. In the 1990s, the “Broken Windows Theory” said, in essence, that decay and neglect beget more decay and neglect. As such, if communities clamp down on smaller infractions like turnstile jumping, graffiti, prostitution, and selling loose cigarettes, then they could reduce the downstream crime. Rudy Giuliani became the mayor of New York City and the champion of broken windows theory and boasted that his officers’ ruthlessness on petty crime leads to the decrease in New York City homicides.

This “Broken Windows Policing” had some fans, and a 2001 paper noted that in areas of NYC that saw spikes in misdemeanor arrests also saw sharp reductions in violent crimes. However, upon further review, the 2001 study omitted some important information that rendered it almost wholly irredeemable. Most notably, the study failed to account for “reversion to the mean,” or the tendency for large spikes in anything — stock prices, crime rates, etc — tend to be followed by large dips back down to a mean amount. While yes, crime in New York did fall under Giuliani’s administration, that likely would have happened with or without stop and frisk policies.

As more and more media outlets pick up the story of the ACLU Effect, we’ll see who can offer additional information or potential solutions. In the end, everyone in Chicago wants to see a reduction in crime, and the ACLU and the Chicago PD may have to reevaluate how they can join forces to do so with the best interests of the citizens in mind.

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