Mayor Rahm Emanuel, accompanied by police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, discusses his crime-fighting strategies with state legislators in September.
  • Brian Jackson / Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel, accompanied by police superintendent Garry McCarthy, discusses his crime-fighting strategies with state legislators in September.

During his first campaign for mayor four years ago, Rahm Emanuel kept talking about police.

He noted as often as he could that his uncle had been a cop on Chicago’s north side. He boasted of his role in crafting the Clinton administration’s 1994 crime bill that funded the hiring of 100,000 police officers nationwide.

And, as the centerpiece of his public safety plan, he vowed to find the money to add 1,000 more officers to Chicago’s force. He said this would prevent crime and improve relationships with the community.

“Police officers will become a presence in the neighborhood rather than only available in response to emergency,” he said.

But within weeks of taking office, Emanuel stopped talking about hiring cops. Instead, over the course of his first term, the number of officers on the force dropped from about 10,900 to 10,600. And the mayor responded to violent crime not by investing in community policing but by calling for stricter gun laws and blaming legislators who balked.

The result after four years: crime totals have fallen, as they have across the country. But Chicago still has more violent crime per capita than New York or Los Angeles, with an average of seven people shot every day.

As Emanuel campaigns for reelection, he argues that the city is on the right track. In a speech on public safety Tuesday, he touted his successes and promised to add investments in police staffing, gun control, community relations, and jobs programs.

His challengers and critics counter that for the last four years he’s worked more at managing perceptions of crime than developing strategies to prevent it.

“The mayor and police superintendent are out looking for whatever short-term program they can to make it appear that they’re having an impact, regardless of whether it does anything,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, a watchdog organization.

Emanuel raised residents’ expectations about crime-fighting from the beginning. Soon after his election he picked Garry McCarthy to serve as police superintendent. McCarthy had spent a stint as the police chief in Newark after 25 years on the force in New York City, during which time crime had fallen dramatically.

“We can reduce crime, we know how to reduce crime, and we can do it without the unintended consequences of ‘heavy handed’ policing,” McCarthy told dazzled aldermen during his confirmation hearing. He added that the most effective strategy would be to keep officers on permanent beats so they could get to know the community.

McCarthy himself was energetic and visible. He appeared at churches, neighborhood meetings, and marches, winning over many leaders in communities battered for years by shootings and murders.

But Emanuel began wiggling away from his hiring promise. The city’s budget was busted, and he decided he had to find other ways of showing that he’s tough on crime.

Over the next few months he issued a series of press releases boasting that he and McCarthy had reassigned hundreds of police officers “to the beat.” Though many of the officers had already been on street duty, the mayor declared mission accomplished on his pledge to increase the police presence.


Trouble started in 2012, when warm weather was accompanied by an outburst of violence. In a single week in March, 67 people were shot and 18 slain.

Emanuel and McCarthy launched a “violence reduction initiative” that paid officers overtime to flood hotspots—pretty much what the department had been doing with specialized units for years, and what McCarthy had previously dismissed as a band-aid. The overtime tab would climb to $100 million a year.

Crime numbers leveled off and even dropped in some areas, but some aldermen still grappling with violence said the initiative wasn’t enough. Politically, it wasn’t—and certainly not after the murder of Hadiya Pendleton.

Hadiya was a 15-year-old student at King high school who performed with the school band at President Obama’s inauguration. A little more than a week later, on January 29, 2013, she and some friends were in a park when a gunman approached, looking for gang rivals. Hadiya just happened to be in the way when he opened fire. She died later that day, the 42nd killing of the month.

On February 11 McCarthy announced the arrests of two young men for the killing. The alleged triggerman, Michael Ward, had previously been caught with a gun and sentenced to probation. McCarthy called that an outrage and declared that gun offenders should be required to do serious prison time.

“If mandatory minimums existed in the state of Illinois, Michael Ward would not have been on the street to commit this heinous act,” the police chief told reporters.

There was no doubt that McCarthy and Emanuel were upset and eager to find some way to respond. But it’s also undeniable that a political opportunity was born in that moment.

Four days after the arrests, state representative Michael Zalewski introduced a bill that would require a minimum of three years in prison for illegal gun possession, formally known as unlawful use of a weapon. For convicted felons or gang members, the sentences would be even longer.

Zalewski, a former Cook County prosecutor, agrees with McCarthy that if gun offenders were kept off the street even a little while longer, it could help prevent another Hadiya from being shot. “We’re tough on sex offenders and drunk drivers,” he says. “Why is this different, especially when kids are getting killed?”

State senator Jacqueline Collins was one of the legislators who signed on. Her south-side district includes a number of neighborhoods hit regularly by gun violence, and she appeared at a press conference with the mayor and police superintendent to back longer mandatory sentences. “I’ve been an antigun advocate,” she says. “I grabbed for the quick fix too.”

Yet many criminal justice experts saw the bill as politically driven and counterproductive. “That’s what the initial proposal was: to telegraph to everyone that the administration really cares about gun violence,” said John Maki, who was then the executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison reform group. “And I’m sure they do, but that’s the wrong way to go at it.” (Governor Bruce Rauner recently tapped Maki to lead the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state oversight agency.)

Maki and other reform advocates began to reach out to legislators. They shared research showing what had happened in other states that had imposed mandatory minimums: the laws had failed as deterrents to crime but succeeded in locking more people up. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated were African-American or Latino—and not just because they were more likely to carry unlicensed guns.


When mandatory minimums are in place, judges and juries lose the discretion to evaluate each case individually, according to researchers, attorneys, and cops. The power shifts to prosecutors, whose decisions about what charges to bring and whether to cut plea deals become even more critical. Racial minorities end up facing more serious charges and sentences.

Plus, not everyone arrested for illegal gun possession—more than 2,000 people a year in Chicago—fits McCarthy’s profile of Michael Ward, according to a sample of gun possession cases I reviewed.

One of them was Lester H., a 51-year-old caught carrying a .25 caliber handgun at a south-side Save-A-Lot in 2010.

Lester is a felon—he was convicted of trying to sell marijuana and cocaine in 1988—but he had worked for years as a janitor at the University of Chicago. He told police he was worried about being jumped in his high-crime neighborhood: “I carry that gun for protection, because I can’t fight anymore,” he said.

A judge sentenced him to probation, which he completed with one slipup: he was caught speeding downstate with marijuana in his car.

Under Emanuel’s proposal, Lester might have been in prison for four years along with many other relatively low-risk offenders. The cost of the additional lockups would be almost $400 million over three years, according to state officials.

The prison system is already dangerously overcrowded. That’s why Alfredo M. was free and able to carry a loaded gun before he’d completed a 14-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder, which itself was the result of a plea deal that spared him from a murder trial. After his early release, Alfredo was arrested in 2011 on a drug charge and again in 2012 for the illegal gun. He was sentenced to five years in prison for those offenses—but he’s now out again on parole.

In other words, the proposal to lock up more gun offenders could actually create a new set of overcrowding and early-parole problems that threaten public safety.


For more than a year after Hadiya’s death, McCarthy held regular press conferences at which he named violent offenders who would have been behind bars if they’d received longer sentences for carrying guns.

Lawmakers weren’t swayed. After studying the issue more, Collins became an opponent of the bill along with much of the rest of the black caucus. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the NRA fought it too. The bill stalled, and house speaker Michael Madigan never called it for a vote.

Zalewski concluded that any new gun bill should be part of a broader effort to ensure that prison is reserved for the most dangerous offenders. He introduced a bill to soften penalties for marijuana possession, and with other legislators he formed a criminal justice reform committee. “We need a new way of doing things that is evidence-based and not just ‘We’re tough on crime,'” he says.

Emanuel got the message too. Battling low approval ratings—especially among black voters—he began to shift to the left in advance of his reelection campaign.

In September he and McCarthy made national news when, in testimony to Zalewski’s committee, they proposed reducing penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs, even heroin and cocaine.

“It’s time to free up our resources for the truly violent offenders who pose the bigger threat to the safety of our communities,” Emanuel said.

But Representative Ken Dunkin suspected that Emanuel was trying to find another way to advance the mandatory minimum gun bill. Dunkin, a Chicago Democrat and one of the leaders of the black caucus, asked the mayor if he would support the drug proposal on its own, without trading it for tougher gun sentences.

Emanuel wouldn’t answer directly, but conceded, “I do believe in penalties as they relate to gun crimes.”

Dunkin pressed on. “I know that when you first came in we were going to hire additional police officers. Is that still a reality?”

The mayor said that hundreds of officers “who used to be behind desks are now behind wheels.”

“So the answer is no,” Dunkin said. “You haven’t hired any additional police officers to address this issue.”


With his reelection effort in full gear, Emanuel has avoided talking about the gun sentencing debate. He’s called for a holistic approach to preventing crime that includes education, jobs, and intervention with at-risk youth. He also says law enforcement should focus more resources on illegal gun traffickers and suppliers.

Still, it’s pretty clear that the mayor hasn’t abandoned his political playbook. At the end of December McCarthy held a press conference to announce that crime had dropped in 2014 to lows not seen since the 1960s—except for shootings, which were up from a year earlier. He blamed the gun laws.

Zalewski says he plans to introduce another round of gun legislation in 2015, hopefully in conjunction with bills that will lower incarceration for other crimes. “I have to build judicial discretion into a very tough gun bill,” he says. “I’m going to keep forcing the issue.”

In the meantime, mayoral challengers Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Robert Fioretti have both pledged to hire more police officers if elected. Neither has detailed how they’d be used or how to pay for them.