New online tool to track Chicago gun suspects draws fire
Critics decry it as a scare tactic that lumps people arrested while carrying or even standing near a gun with those who have pulled them out and used them
By Don Babwin
CHICAGO — After a recent bloody weekend in Chicago, the city's top police officer reiterated something he's said many times in recent months: People accused of gun-related offenses are too quickly and easily getting back on the street.
This time, Superintendent Eddie Johnson unveiled a new online tool aimed at illustrating his point by giving the public a quick way to see who's been arrested on gun-related charges and whether they have posted bail.
"If we're OK with how things are going, then don't look at it," Johnson said as he announced the Gun Offender Dashboard. "But if you want to know why we are suffering from some of the things we are, then take a look at it and come to your own conclusions."
The tool is part of a public relations offensive to draw attention to what Johnson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot say is a cause of gun violence in Chicago, where more people are fatally shot than in any other city in the U.S.
But critics decry it as a scare tactic that lumps people arrested while carrying or even standing near a gun with those who have pulled them out and used them. They say it unfairly maligns people who under the law are presumed innocent and is aimed at pressuring judges into keeping people locked up while they await trial.
"The people on this list have not been convicted of the crimes for which they were charged," Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said in a written statement. "Yet CPD is flaunting bond court stats as if they have already been convicted."
"Even sex offenders have to be found guilty in a court of law before we put them on a public registry labeling them as sex offenders," added Era Laudermilk, a top Campanelli deputy.
The dispute over the tool stems from a larger disagreement over changes to Cook County's bail system. To ensure people don't languish in jail while waiting for trial, the county's chief judge, Timothy Evans, two years ago implemented a policy that requires judges to set affordable bail amounts for those not deemed a danger to the community.
By all accounts, the policy has had a dramatic effect. Today, 1,500 fewer are people in the county's jail.
But Johnson and Lightfoot contend the county's judicial system is failing to protect the public from violent criminals who they say have discovered that the price of getting caught with a gun can be as little as a day or two of freedom and a couple hundred dollars for bail. Or no money at all.
They point out that the information they're using is already available to the public through police and court records.
"Since when is it a problem to put out public information?" Lightfoot asked during a recent press briefing.
But critics say even the name of the tool — Gun Offender Dashboard — implies guilt.
"These are not offenders, they're arrestees," said Stephanie Kollman, policy director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University's law school.
The disagreement comes even as the number of shootings in Chicago has reached a four-year low. The city saw 1,210 shootings and 282 homicides in the first seven months of the year, down from 1,363 shootings and 321 homicides during the same period of 2018.
Some critics say Johnson's talk about a revolving door at the jail is little more than an effort to distract from his department's inability to bring violent offenders to justice. In a letter to Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle noted a study that found police make arrests in only about one in four homicides and only about one in 20 shootings.
"The problem is not what happens when violent criminals come before judges in Chicago, but rather what happens when violent criminals are never brought before a judge," Preckwinkle, who lost the mayoral race to Lightfoot in April, wrote. That leaves "families of victims with no closure while violent perpetrators of crime are emboldened to continue wreaking havoc in our communities."
Johnson disputes any suggestion that he's trying to distract the public from focusing on his department.
Both sides point to statistics they say support their arguments.
Johnson wrote to Campanelli that more than one in 10 of those arrested on felony gun charges last year was arrested again for a violent crime or another weapons charge. Seventy-two of the 4,300 people arrested on gun charges have since been shot.
But Campanelli points to a report from Judge Evans that found in the first 15 months of the new bail policy, just 147 — or 0.6% — of more than 24,000 pretrial felony defendants released from custody were charged with a new violent offense.
"So, do we lock up 99.4% of the people who come to bond court because 0.6% are committing new offenses?" she asked. "That's just fear-mongering."