University of Chicago Law Review

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To many, the city of Chicago conjures up a specter of unremitting urban violence. In 2014, the city was labeled the “murder capital” of the United States.1 The following year, a video of the police shooting Laquan McDonald became a cynosure of public concern.2 Commentators as disparate as Spike Lee and President Donald Trump agree: Chicago is uniquely bloody.3 Predictably, the empirical data about Chicago’s crime and policing trends belie the most dramatic of these claims.4 Yet if Chicago is not as violent as either Lee or Trump makes it out to be, the city’s experience nonetheless provides a fruitful lens through which to consider the causes, dynamics, and optics of urban violence and the array of potential legal and policy responses. Our home city’s centrality to traditions of urban sociology, its rich tapestries of racial and ethnic diversity, the durability of its residential segregation and economic stratification, and its role in both police reform and retrenchment—all these provide fertile ground for seeding discussion about the legal and policy problematics of urban violence.

This Symposium gathers a diverse range of empirical, theoretical, and legal perspectives on these problematics as illuminated by the case of Chicago. Scholars from the legal academy and the social sciences take up divergent questions through this lens in the pages that follow. Their contributions touch on both the causes of violence and potential responses. The Symposium thus confronts the following sorts of questions: Why does urban violence, of various forms, arise and persist? How does the frequency and distribution of such violence relate to larger socioeconomic dynamics of urban violence in contexts of concentrated and intractable poverty? What have we learned from decades of massive investments in policing and incarceration, as opposed to noncarceral policy instruments? What are the costs, particularly to historically marginalized groups, of the decision to use coercive rather than supportive interventions? How do various forms of violence—informal and state—interact with each other? And how have initiatives from within communities changed the patterns or stakes of violence?

In two respects, we (as conveners of the Symposium) aim to initiate a debate that is broader than the discussions of urban violence commonly found in the popular press and the academy. To begin with, we frame the problem of urban violence to include both (typically criminal) private violence and (typically lawful) state coercion used by the police and others—phenomena that may be linked.5 As a historical matter, deaths from police violence once comprised nearly 6% of homicides in Chicago.6 Police violence obviously remains a flash point for public controversy today.7 It is hard to see how an analysis of urban violence can account for both the costs and benefits of policy choices—and, in particular, the election between carceral and noncarceral tools—while losing sight of police violence. Second, as just suggested, we resist the assumption that coercive interventions exhaust the plausible domain of responses to urban violence. There is ample evidence, including important work by some of the participants in this Symposium, that violence rates respond to noncoercive policy levers.8 An examination of urban violence that assumes away the relevance of noncoercive interventions is necessarily incomplete.

Our modest goal in this Introduction is to assemble some baseline empirics concerning both private violence and state coercion to provide a context for the pieces that follow. In so doing, we aim to mitigate the need for “scene setting” by each paper in the Symposium.

Readers of the Symposium will find here a synoptic guide to some basic facts about the distribution and extent of criminal violence, as well as socioeconomic conditions and police activity, in Chicago. We include, too, several intercity comparisons to facilitate exploration of whether Chicago presents uniquely dystopic dynamics. To the extent feasible, we rely on graphical representations of the data that are easily and quickly grasped. Our aim here is not to tender any single substantive claim but rather to provide some common ground for the analytic pieces that follow. We conclude by canvassing briefly the contributions made by specific pieces in the Symposium

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