It’s Time to Think Critically About the UChicago Crime Lab

The Crime Lab’s lack of transparency and neglect of structural analysis contributes to problems it purports to solve.

By Robert Vargas

The deaths of Black people at the hands of police and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Chicagoans have made it critical to reassess all of our efforts to improve Black Chicago communities. One of these largest efforts to date has been the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Founded in 2008 by Jens Ludwig, Harold Pollack, and Roseanna Ander, the Crime Lab has partnered with the Chicago Police Department and the Mayor’s office to reduce the city’s violent crime and improve its police force. It has garnered tremendous financial support and endorsements from some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals such as Ken Griffin and President Barack Obama.

As much as Crime Lab has been lauded, the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests in cities across the U.S. have powerfully illuminated some of the its serious flaws that ought to force South Siders, nonprofit organizations, the University of Chicago, our mayor, University donors, and city council members to rethink their support of this enterprise.

The root of the problem lies in the Crime Lab’s strong focus on individual behavior. It sees Black people and Black communities as in need of being fixed. This approach is not new but is rather the latest iteration in a series of efforts to improve cities by managing Black individuals instead of ending the police violence Black communities endure. In her book, Body and Soul, Institute for Advanced Study sociologist Alondra Nelson chronicled Black activists’ efforts in 1960s Los Angeles to contest UCLA’s Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, which viewed violent crime as a disease afflicting Black people rather than a problem rooted in social structures. Similarly, Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton’s research shows how research on youth delinquency by University of Chicago–trained sociologists helped to put in motion the rise of mass incarceration.

The Crime Lab’s signature youth-intervention program, titled “Becoming a Man” , carries the baton from its predecessors by framing youth violence as a cognitive psychological deficiency in the minds of young Black men. Crime Lab has been transparent about this approach, which can be seen on any one of their research presentations on YouTube. For example, in a lecture given in May 2015, Crime Lab codirector Jens Ludwig described “Becoming a Man” as simply trying to get young people to “stop, look, and listen” when reacting to stressful environments.

At the 15-minute mark, Ludwig acknowledges that his peers have called for structural intervention to prevent violence, but then goes on to dismiss such an approach. “As I’m sure it will not be a surprise to anyone in the audience, both [poverty and moral poverty] are enormously difficult to change. We have been trying to reduce the poverty rate for a long, long time in the United States with very limited success, and it has proven enormously difficult for public policy and social science to figure out ways of substantially changing the kind of parenting that parents provide the children and the kind of developmental quality of the neighborhoods that we see in places like the South and West Sides of Chicago.”

I encourage readers to view the presentation in its entirety. In addition to being unclear about who constitutes “we” in his statement, Ludwig cites the difficulties in improving Black neighborhoods as a justification for his individual-focused psychological intervention. 

This is not the first time Crime Lab has dismissed broader institutional sources of Chicago’s violence and policing problems. In 2017, after Chicago’s dramatic 2016 spike in violence, Crime Lab partnered with The New York Times to host a forum on solutions to Chicago’s violence. The mostly white attendees and speakers, as described by a journalist in attendance, dismissed the role of the police-legitimacy crisis triggered by the murder of Laquan McDonald, state-budget cuts in social-service spending, and the closing of Chicago schools as factors contributing to the spike in violence.

The emphasis on fixing the behaviors of Black individuals rather than the police departments, police unions, city councils, financial institutions, or health-care infrastructures underserving them is precisely why so many are in the streets protesting for structural, systemic change. This focus on individual behavior is the same logic informing COVID-19 interventions aimed at disciplining Black and white working-class communities into social distancing, as opposed to improving paid sick leave or assisting the unemployed.

Even more troubling is the lack of public transparency in the Crime Lab’s collaboration with the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Groups like the Lucy Parsons Lab have claimed that as a recipient of government contracts, the Crime Lab (like the CPD) ought to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. After having their request for correspondence between the Crime Lab and the CPD declined, the Lucy Parsons Lab has filed suit and are awaiting summary judgement. 

The idea of an unaccountable private research lab partnering with an unaccountable police force should be troubling for anyone concerned with transparency, justice, and civil rights—the very principles that many protestors have been fighting for on our city streets. One cannot help but wonder whether the strategic call centers and shot-spotter technologies that Crime Lab has helped CPD operate were used to monitor or suppress protest activity in Chicago over the past couple weeks.

Transparency is also key from a research perspective as it is unclear which CPD strategies the Crime Lab has ever found to be ineffective or harmful. My online searches of the Crime Lab’s publications yielded no studies that have shown ineffective or harmful effects of city interventions on Chicago’s Black communities. Researchers refer to this as “publication bias,” which occurs when the study outcome influences the decision to publish,  distribute, or publicize it. As partners with CPD and recipients of millions of dollars of donations from wealthy individuals, it’s difficult to ignore potential conflicts of interest that may arise when a Crime Lab study finds no effects or harmful effects of a police intervention. The questions raised by advocacy groups deserve answers.

The work of entities like the Crime Lab obstructs or ignores, rather than engages with, alternative novel theoretical and applied research approaches that seek to transform the social structures and institutions shaping Chicago’s Black communities. The following are some examples of research enterprises that are better positioned to pursue a brighter future.

First, scholars like Craig Futterman and John Rappaport at the University of Chicago Law School have been conducting research on “police indemnification,” an important yet little-known policy that makes individual police officers exempt from paying damages for their misconduct. Police indemnification and, more broadly, the process of adding accountability measures to police-union collective-bargaining agreements with city governments, is a worthwhile research investment.

Second, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture is home to the Race and Capitalism project, which investigates the links between racial and economic inequality. As the recent protests come on the heels of both massive unemployment and a resurgence of racist violence against Black people, the study of race and capitalism can chart new ways to restructure our economy, social safety net, and urban policy.

Third, newly arrived UChicago sociologist Neil Brenner is bringing his Urban Theory Lab to campus, devoted to investigating the transformations of cities under 21st-century capitalism. Brenner’s team is working to imagine new urban futures in light of climate change and environmental degradation. A space to imagine a new future at this most urgent time could not be of greater importance. 

These are just a few of many system-oriented research enterprises going on in the South Side of Chicago that I would encourage citizens, organizers, activists, students, professors, and University administrators to partner with as we search for ways forward.

Robert Vargas is an associate professor in the sociology department.