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Why Trump thinks he understands Chicago crime

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

It's way too early to break out the champagne but Chicago found some good news for a change in its year-end homicide count. You'll know the news is really great when President Donald Trump tries to take credit for it.

After two of its worst years in the past two decades, the city saw a roughly 16 percent decrease in homicides in 2017 compared with 2016 -- the city's steepest one-year decline in nearly 15 years.

That's a blessing. Even though it means the city still had 650 killings, according to data kept by the Chicago Tribune, that's down from 771 the previous year. Most of the drop came in the second half of the year, so the numbers are trending in the right direction.

Yet President Trump, echoing some of the conservative commentators he likes to watch on television, constantly calls out Chicago as his leading example of the "American carnage" he described in his inauguration address.

Listening to Trump, you might never guess that there are smaller cities that have had more murders per capita, the usual standard for comparison. So why are conservatives so obsessed with Chicago?

"Daily Show" host Trevor Noah figured it out after playing clips of right-wing commentators complaining that President Barack Obama was "failing" his hometown. "When there's shootings, Obama is from Chicago. All the other times he's from Kenya."

Ha, ha. Of course, it would not be totally fair to say conservatives only care about using Chicago's homicide rate to score political points. Some liberals do that, too. But unfortunately the more sensible voices on both sides too often get drowned out by those who would rather stir up tribal rivalries and resentments.

"More than two homicide victims per day." Trump lamented in a July tweet. "What the hell is going on in Chicago? Better tell that mayor to get tough."

Get tough? Meaning what? Trump's version of toughness on crime tends to sound like a warmed-over version of President Richard Nixon's lock-'em-up "law and order" platform from the 1960s with little regard for the lessons that police and urban leaders have learned about what really works and what doesn't.

For example, Trump opposes "sanctuary cities" without regard to how much police officials say fear of deportation prevents many undocumented crime victims from calling police or cooperating with investigators.

He endorses the notion that those who protest police misconduct are waging a "war on police," as if civilian lives and rights don't matter.

He backs Attorney General Jeff Sessions' declaration in August that "New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city's 'soft on crime' stance."

In fact, we now know that the Big Apple continued to enjoy a quarter-century-long decline in violent crime, ending 2016 with fewer than 300 homicides, the city's lowest number (matched by similar statistics for most other violent crimes, except rape) since the 1950s.

And contrary to the lock-'em-up crowd's expectations, the crime drop has been accompanied by a 50 percent drop in the city's prison population over the past 20 years, according to a study released last year, even as the city's overall population increased.

Yet this has led one leading crime expert, Heather Mac Donald, a scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute, to the conclusion that New Yorkers can credit their crime drop to white hipsters and gentrification.

In an essay in National Review titled "We Can't Take the Wrong Lessons from New York's Murder Drop," she attacks unnamed "libertarians" and the "anti-cop Left" who she claims oppose all "proactive policing" as "irrelevant to crime levels."

Noting statistics on several gentrified communities that gained white population and lost people of color, she credits "urban hipsters ... flocking to areas that once were the purview of drug dealer and pimps" and bringing new commerce, street life and public safety.

True, but she omits how the drop in crime in those gentrified communities began several years before the local population shifted from mostly nonwhite to mostly white. Worse, she omits data that would show how changes in education and income had more to do with the neighborhood improvements than racial change alone.

But Mac Donald is hardly the first expert to reach out for simple, one-size-fits-all solutions to urban crime. Nobody has all the answers to it. We're still learning how to ask the right questions.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2018 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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