Targeting Violent Crime: The Sequel of Unintended Consequences

Chicago has experienced a disturbing number of homicides, shootings, and overall violence during the past year. Chicago, like several other American cities, is once again experiencing unprecedented levels of violent […]
Published on September 12, 2020

Chicago has experienced a disturbing number of homicides, shootings, and overall violence during the past year. Chicago, like several other American cities, is once again experiencing unprecedented levels of violent crimes, shootings, and homicides, matching the historic levels of violence recorded during the historic spike in 2016 – a year in which the city experienced its highest number of murders in nearly two decades.

Shootings this year are up 45% and homicides are up 34% over the same period of time in 2019. In June alone, Chicago recorded 89 murders and 424 shootings. The number of shooting victims recorded last month (562) is 85% higher than June of 2019 (304). According to the Chicago Police Department data, there have been 329 murders and 1,384 shootings through the first six months of this year, the highest recorded during the first six months of a year since 2016.1

In 2016 there were 2311 shooting occurrences and 459 murders between January and August 28, 2016 reported by the Chicago Police Department.2 In comparison Baltimore had experienced 190 homicides and 597 shooting occurrences in the same period that year.3 

Toronto, a city of comparable size, had also had a bad year with 273 shooting occurrences recorded and 48 homicides from January to August 29, 2016.4 This year Toronto has recorded 258 shootings as of July 26. By comparison there were 217 shootings year to date in 2016. This year’s numbers so far are higher than any other year since 2015. There were 108 people killed by shootings year to date in 2016 compared to 119 year to date this year.5

Politicians, media, and citizens in both cities were concerned then, as now, about public safety and are increasingly shocked with increases in violent crime; and officials in all three cities continue to struggle with devising strategies and programs to counter the trend of increasing violence.  

The obvious responses, then and now, include increased uniform patrols in areas prone to gang activity and violent crimes, increasing focus on the enforcement of bail and parole conditions, enhanced undercover operations against gangs, drug trafficking, and firearms offences, enhancing intelligence-led initiatives through surveillance, informants, agents, and covert initiatives, improved community participation through intake of anonymous sources information such as Crime Stoppers, and greater commitment to seeking stiffer sentences for offenders.

Each precinct may for instance, develop a list of outstanding warrants for violent offenders and hold officers or teams of officers responsible for executing those warrants, effecting arrests, and laying of appropriate charges to support prosecutions that result in the stiffest sentences possible. Community response units may be assigned directed patrol to specific problem areas with the goal of increasing time spent within those areas. Officers may also be assigned to conducting investigations of proceeds of crimes, enforcement of immigration laws against violent offenders who have been subject to deportation, and collaboration with partner agencies to share actionable intelligence.

All of these responses are common sense responses for those in law enforcement. These are the obvious, tried and tested responses to crime and disorder management. This all-out effort to control increasing violent crimes, however, requires careful assessment of the effectiveness with which enforcement is directed; the outcomes being assessed by the quantitative measures of enforcement and the resulting reductions in crime. Quantitative measures become increasingly important during times when social norms, and trends are stretched beyond the limits of acceptability. In the case of Chicago, based on a comparison of crimes in comparable sized cities, it is not unreasonable that police leaders focus on getting a handle on the situation. This is the expected response reflected in a statement by the Chicago Police Department:

“We remain committed to building on our all-hands-on-deck strategy,” police Superintendent David Brown said in a statement, “and partnering with those in the community and in law enforcement to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice.”6

There is another side to the problem, however, that must not be diminished; and that has to do with the collateral consequences of any strategic response. No strategic response is completely absent of some degree of unintended consequence despite its effectiveness in achieving its intended goals. While the hard on crime, hard on violent gang members strategy may be necessary for getting things under control, there will be unintended consequences. Let us examine what those might be.

First, although no one would wish that a certain class of individuals may be completely immune to correction and redemption, it is unlikely that any significant proportion of the current generation of violent offenders and gang members will be completely rehabilitated towards becoming responsible, productive, and civic-minded citizens. That rehabilitation will, of course, be greatly dependent on the programs offered with the correctional services, and not necessarily by the police.

But how the police respond in the interdiction of the present generation of criminals, and how their apprehension and detention is executed will have a direct impact on the families of the accused. The execution of a zero-tolerance strategy against the offender, if not appropriately mitigated with offenders’ families and communities within which the offenders invite police enforcement, may potentially result in another generation of citizens who will view the police as unfair, heavy-handed, and untrustworthy. 

Police leaders must redouble their efforts of community engagement to mitigate their enforcement.  Community policing should not be a fair-weather strategy, one for promotional policing alone; community-based policing becomes even more critical during the bad days of policing when officers must serve their full purpose as the guardians of public safety against the most violent offenders.  

Matters are likely to be further complicated due to arbitrary deployment by the federal government of highly militarized federal agents. This deployment is a complete abdication of the principles on which policing is founded – that the people are the police and the police are the people. One of nine principles articulated by Sir Robert Peel. 

While redoubling intelligence-led strategies, and ensuring a zero-tolerance approach to those who would intentionally and indiscriminately cause harm, murder, and terrorize others, there must be a proportionate increase in the support for the victims, victimized communities, and families of the accused. 

Second, while rehabilitation is not a function of the police, nor should it be, the quality and effectiveness of rehabilitative efforts do however impact on the public safety and the quality of lives of the citizens, and therefore does impact policing.  While police leaders have been notably vocal in their resistance to the legalization of drugs, even to harm reduction strategies, there has been much less advocacy for programs that improve rehabilitation of offenders and reduce recidivism.

After the police have done their part, some might argue too effectively, in enforcing the rules of society those who have been handed custody of offenders following police intervention have not historically been as effective. Just as the effectiveness of policing is based on prevention and enforcement, the function of those downstream from police intervention must be more than simply that of warehousing offenders.  

The effectiveness of correctional institutions and prisons must include appropriate programs for the safe and effective reintegration of those who are to be released back into society. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice that tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states following their release from prison, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) were rearrested within three years, and over three-quarters (76.6 percent) had been rearrested within five years.7 By contrast the two-year recidivism rates in Norway ranged from 14 percent to 42 percent depending on whether the samples included arrested, convicted or imprisoned persons, a one-year recidivism rate of 25 percent in Northern Ireland and 43 percent in England and Wales.8

It would be unfair to attribute greater responsibility to those down stream from police intervention for greater effectiveness without recognizing the complexity of rehabilitation, compounded by myriad factors such as deviance, intellectual functioning, age, sex, race, maturity, socio-economic status, and many other criminogenic and socio-economic factors. These, however, are not new challenges that have not already received substantial academic and practitioner resources and attention.

It would not, therefore, be unfair for police leaders to target greater expectation of corrections services in impacting positive results towards mitigating recidivism.  Initiatives like the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which brings together government and justice agencies, community-based organizations, civil rights advocates, community members, parents, educators, and youth towards collaborating on processes that compel all parties to focus on innovation and fairness on youth justice issues and the reduction of policies and practices that reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the use of detention.9 Simply locking up more prisoners is at best a temporary solution; and at worse a new supply of recruits for the criminal training grounds of already overcrowded prisons and jails.

Third, the war on drugs and crime of the past three decades has already filled jails to capacity. As these prisoners exhaust their sentences and are released into society, former inmates are likely to fare poorly. High unemployment, compounded by a criminal record, and a lack of social and technical skills curtailed by their time away from their communities will make reintegration difficult. Lack of support and encouragement is likely to result in a return to marginalization and a life of crime.

Police leaders must therefore advocate for an integrative approach to the provisional of social services to see former inmates through their passage from the gates of prisons to entry-level jobs and engagement within their communities. Some have compared the challenge to the deinstitutionalization and transfer of people suffering from serious mental health illnesses out of state-run psychiatric hospitals.

The Centre for Social Development at Washington University identifies the next decade as a critical period in the decarceration of the present prison population. The report notes: “Smart decarceration has the potential to improve social welfare and social justice for a large segment of our society – not only those directly involved in the criminal justice system, but also the families and communities from which they come.”10 

What police leaders can do is make a deliberate and committed effort to move the conversation to be inclusive of policymakers and practitioners, re-examine resource allocation, diversify the philosophical arguments on social advancement, and promote interdisciplinary and multi-agency engagement; and most importantly promote debate and social innovation.11 

There is at present a cultural commitment to siloization, each part of the criminal justice system operating with the primary aim of achieving efficiency, to closing their respective files, and passing the accused on to the next silo with the efficiency of an Olympic relay race. Accused are recycled like batons in a cyclical race, with no one ever taking the time to assess, mend, and polish the baton. We are presently discarding the soles of accused persons like disposable commodities, a reflection of our consumer culture that so easily replaces the old with new. Unfortunately, the new in this case are the next generations of accused, usually from the same communities, and even the same families as past generations of accused. 

This article has also been recycled. It is a revised version of an article I submitted in 2016, and sent to the Chicago Police Department, Baltimore Police, and Toronto Police Service. I have recycled this, as a reminder to myself, and to those who may have read the last version in 2016 that nothing has changed; to serve as a shameful realization of our failure.


Anil Anand is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years; during his career some of his assignments included divisional officer, undercover narcotics officer, and intelligence officer. He has worked in Professional Standards, Business Intelligence, Corporate Communications, the Ipperwash Inquiry (judicial public inquiry), and Interpol.

Photo by Luther Bottrill on Unsplash


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  1. Masterson, Matt. Chicago Matching 2016 Homicide Pace Through First Half of 2020 City ended 2016 with most murders in nearly two decades; WTTW Crime and Law, July 1, 2020. Accessed: July 31, 2020
  1. Chicago Police Department. CompStat Report Covering the Week of 22-Aug-16 Through 28-Aug-16, See:
  2. Baltimore Police Department. Incident Report Data for week ending 08/20/2016. See:
  3. Toronto Police Service, TPS Crime Statistics, Shootings and Homicides Year-to-Date. See:
  4. Toronto Police Service, Crime @ a Glance, Accessed: July 31, 2020
  5. Masterson, Matt. Chicago Matching 2016 Homicide Pace Through First Half of 2020 City ended 2016 with most murders in nearly two decades; WTTW Crime and Law, July 1, 2020. Accessed: July 31, 2020
  1. Durose, Matthew R., Alexia D. Cooper, and Howard N. Snyder. U.S. Department of Justice, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010” 
  2. Fazal, Seena, and Achim Wolf.  “Systematic Review of Criminal Recidivism Rates Worldwide: Current Difficulties and Recommendations for Best Practice” PLoS One. 2015; 10(6): e0130390. Published online 2015 Jun 18. See:
  1. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. An Effective Approach to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice, Detention Reform Brief 3. Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Publication 2009. Accessed August 31, 2016. 
  2. Pettus-Davis, C., & Epperson, M. W. (2015). From mass incarceration to smart decarceration (Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 4). Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.
  3. Ibid.


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