Study Creates Controversy over ACLU Effect on Chicago Homicides

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Apr 12, 2018

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PoliceTwo professors from the University of Utah recently released a paper documenting an extensive study analyzing the effects of a 2016 agreement between the ACLU and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) which requires officers to provide detailed justification for stop-and-frisk searches.  According to the paper, the change in stop-and-frisk procedure contributed significantly to an alarming rise in Chicago homicides; however, legal and scientific experts have sharply disagreed with the findings.

ACLU and CPD Stop-and-Frisk Agreement

After years of pressing the CPD to consider the effects of stop-and-frisk procedures, in early 2016 the Illinois ACLU was able to develop an agreement with the department which required officers to thoroughly document every street stop.  The documentation required officers to provide a detailed justification which demonstrated that the constitutional requirements for a stop-and-frisk event were met in each case.  In a long history of legal cases regarding law enforcement’s right to search citizens, the American legal system has set forth the requirement that police can only stop a citizen if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person in question is committing a crime.

Although the definition of reasonable suspicion is vague, the requirement generally protects citizens from arbitrary stops from police officers which are initiated without apparent justification.  Advocacy groups including the ACLU have long argued that stop-and-frisk policies have been abused, and that police departments across the country, particularly in major cities, deploy their authority largely against racial minorities who are profiled by officers on the street.  The agreement between the ACLU and the CPD was designed to curb racial profiling and other unconstitutional police behavior by requiring officers to demonstrate their stop-and-frisk event satisfied the constitutional requirements by showing reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed.  Following enforcement of the agreement, street stops declined sharply from 600,000 in 2015 to 100,000 in 2016 – an 82% decrease.

Concurrent with the decline in street stops, Chicago saw a dramatic rise in homicides during the year 2016.  In 2015, Chicago documented 480 homicides, but that number increased by 58% to 754 homicides in 2016.  Unofficially, officers in the CPD dubbed the increase the “ACLU Effect” in a nod to the enhanced street stop requirements, and last week two academics from Utah provided evidence which may support that position.

Academic Paper Incites Controversy over ACLU Effect on Chicago Homicides

University of Utah researchers Paul Cassell, law, and Richard Fowles, Economics, challenged the ACLU’s agreement with the CPD with a detailed statistical analysis of the factors which contributed to the rise in Chicago homicides.  According to Cassell and Fowles, when considering several variables including temperature, homicides elsewhere in the state, arrests rates in Chicago, and homicide rates in comparable cities, there is significant statistical evidence to suggest that the 2016 dramatic increase in Chicago homicide rates can be attributed to the decrease in stop-and-frisk events initiated by the CPD.  The entirety of the paper can be accessed here, and Cassell has provided an explanatory post for the work here, with a response to criticism here.

Led by the ACLU and leading academics in criminal justice and policing practices, critics have fired back at Cassell and Fowles’ work with a number of observed deficiencies.  Ranging from criticism of the statistical methods to observations that the work does not account for factors such as the CPD shooting of Laquan McDonald in late 2015 or adequately discuss different trends in New York and Seattle (both cities have similar policies without corresponding increases in homicides), the response to the ACLU Effect report has moved the needle among advocates for and against aggressive police practices.

The Illinois ACLU’s official response can be found here, with the agency pointedly rejecting the central argument with a series of factors that the Utah professors allegedly did not consider.

Report Controversy Highlights Challenge of Legal Reform

 As with most controversies between academic and committed professionals, there are likely good points on either side.  While the concerns articulated by Cassell and Fowles may not be as much of a contributing factor to an increase in homicide rates in Chicago, the report does highlight an important thing to consider when working with law enforcement to improve community / police relationships while still ensuring public safety.

The ACLU Effect report is unlikely to lead to an end to the agreement between the CPD and the Illinois ACLU; however, it will generate further research which explores the impact of legal advocacy efforts.  As groups such as the ACLU and other organizations continue to put pressure on law enforcement to review practices, the legal community will likely respond with a variety of research reports which attempt to connect policy changes to particular outcomes.  As legislators, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and academic researchers becoming increasingly interconnected, the opportunity to digest and debate the impact of legal changes will become more common.

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