Chicago Crime Alerts – Pernicious Perception or an Inconvenient Truth?

Gun Rights

Earlier this year, Chicago city council member Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth made steering-wheel locks available for free to interested residents. The message she shared was that “[s]afety is a top priority for our office. We believe that everyone deserves to live in a safe and healthy neighborhood: a goal that we’re working to achieve through both individual action such as protecting your vehicle and community action …”

The commitment to public safety “as a top priority for our office” also featured at the start of a May 29 blog post in which the alderman, “a progressive Democrat” who represents Chicago’s 48th ward, advised that she had stopped posting crime alerts online and had changed her default crime alert emails for constituents, as this conflicted with “values of empowerment, antiracism, and community.” Constituents who wished to continue receiving her crime alerts would have to affirmatively “opt in.”

The blog post about the change explains that “our office’s commitment to public safety” requires communication “methods that align with our 48th ward mission statement and values” (namely, “empowerment, antiracism, community, service, and joy”). As further support for the new policy, the blog cites “research from recent years that shows how over-reporting of crime leads to an inaccurate public perception about violent crime rates and negatively impacts our most marginalized and underserved neighbors” (emphasis in original). 

According to local news source CWB Chicago, the blog post’s original research link took readers to a 2018 University of Tehran study titled, The U.S. Media’s Effect on Public’s Crime Expectations: A Cycle of Cultivation and Agenda-Setting Theory. (The gist is that “despite actual crime rates having decreased in the U.S., people’s fear of crime has in fact increased. This article will discuss the media and its coverage of crime topics, especially in news programs, as one of the key causes of such existing contradictions within U.S. society.”). Interestingly, it seems that at some point the Tehran study link was removed and replaced with an opinion piece on how mainstream media distort crime reporting by focusing on violent crime (“…imagine if every single city code violation was covered on the nightly news in the way that carjackings were and framed as a crime.”).

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The alderman urged constituents looking for general public safety information about Ward 48 to contact the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) Districts 20 and 24 or, in the case of a “business owner seeking more public safety information, reach out to your chamber of commerce.” 

Those who take the time to visit the CPD website and examine the latest police crime statistics for Police Districts 24 and 20 (where the alderman’s office is located) will discover that Ward 48 crime is far from a figment of “over-reporting” and “inaccurate public perception.” Contrary to the alderman’s justifications, fear of increased crime in her ward is much more likely to correspond, truthfully, to skyrocketing crime rates.

Compared to the previous three post-pandemic years, as of June 02, 2024, District 24 has experienced a 109% increase in overall reported major crimes, including a 67% spike in murders, 39% in robberies, and 33% in aggravated batteries, all capped with a 270% increase in motor vehicle thefts. The situation is even more demoralizing for residents of District 20. This year, as compared to 2021 through 2023, District 20 experienced an overall 135% increase in reported major crimes, with every listed category of major crime showing double- or triple-digit hikes. Murders and aggravated batteries both increased by 100%, criminal sexual assaults increased by 60%, robberies increased by 29%, and there was a staggering 586% increase in motor vehicle thefts (which certainly explains the steering-wheel locks giveaway).    

Writing about Manaa-Hoppenworth’s decision to stop sharing crime reports, CWB Chicago dug deeper into historical crime statistics and points out that “[y]ear-to-date shooting incidents in the 48th ward are at the highest level since 2015,” the number of robberies as of May 13 are “the highest number of year-to-date robberies since 2012,” and “[a]lso at the highest level in her ward since at least 2012 are criminal sexual assaults.” In the words of CWB Chicago, “Do you know what else leads to a perception of high crime rates? High crime.”

None of this makes for comfortable reading. Manaa-Hoppenworth’s office acknowledges as much, indicating that her crime alerts are “potentially traumatic.” The alderman’s facile solution (much like those steering-wheel locks) is to mute the information, rather than address what is for-real traumatizing – the runaway crime in her ward and across Chicago. Despite all of the switched-on political rhetoric about public safety, “empowerment,” and how everyone “deserves to live in a safe and healthy neighborhood,” Manaa-Hoppenworth’s focus here is on the presentation, not the difficult problem.

And how “empowering” can it be to live in a community whose elected representative opts to withhold information on crime? Residents already know what “public safety” as a “highest priority” looks like in the Windy City. Given the crime reports out of Chicago, the “most marginalized and underserved neighbors” that Manaa-Hoppenworth fears will be traumatized by overwrought public perceptions and crime messaging are justifiably more concerned with being oppressed by actual criminals.

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