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Chicago Mourns Police Officer's Death Amid Rise In Homicides


Chicago has been mourning the death of police officer Ella French. She was shot to death last weekend during a traffic stop. Her partner was critically wounded. And about 100 people gathered outside Chicago Police headquarters yesterday afternoon for a prayer vigil in a noteworthy moment of unity.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And everyone gathered here knows the enemy is not a police officer, and the enemy is not a kid on the corner. The enemy is hatred.

SIMON: Patrick Smith is a criminal justice reporter at member station WBEZ and joins us from Chicago. Patrick, thanks so much for being with us.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Everything I've read about Officer French suggests that she was a very rare person and police officer. What have we learned?

SMITH: That's what I've heard as well. People who knew Officer French described her as an animal lover and a person driven to become a police officer because of a desire to help people. That's what I heard from Father Dan Brandt. He's the police department's chaplain.


DAN BRANDT: She was very popular, wildly popular with her co-workers. She was the real police, as they say, which is the - one of the greatest compliments a copper can pay to another copper.

SMITH: One example of just what a special person - an officer - Officer French was - one story that's come out since her killing just a little more than a month ago - there was a mass shooting in West Englewood. That's the same neighborhood where French was killed. One of the victims was an infant, and Officer French was one of the officers who rushed the 1-month-old baby to the hospital and helped save her life.

SIMON: And the shooting of a month-old baby is just a reminder of how grave the gun violence problem has become in parts of Chicago.

SMITH: That's absolutely right. Since the start of 2020, nearly 7,000 people have been shot here in Chicago according to city data. Officer French was killed with a gun that police say was bought illegally in a neighboring state. And that is a big problem here. There are no gun stores here in Chicago. You can't legally buy a gun here. But guns coming into the city from states like Indiana and Missouri are a huge problem according to officials.

SIMON: The man who allegedly bought the gun in Indiana has been charged in federal court. A judge let him out on bond while he awaits trial. The police superintendent is openly furious and says this is a recurring problem.

SMITH: That's right. Superintendent David Brown called the judge's decision in that case an outrage, although the man has no criminal history before this. Of course, the alleged shooter is still in custody and was denied bail. And like you were saying, Brown has been critical all summer of judges letting defendants out on bail. Normally, he saved his anger for local Cook County judges - in this case, it was a federal judge. But Brown has said that Cook County judges - their efforts at bail reform are - is part of the reason for Chicago's high levels of violence. I should say that there's no statistical evidence linking the rise in violence here in Chicago to bond decisions.

SIMON: Chicago police officers are openly upset with a lot right now, aren't they?

SMITH: They really are. And that's what I've heard from lots and lots of officers. Officers are still feeling the effects of the nonstop protests last summer, really long hours, the pressures of being under a consent decree to clean up decades of issues. And there's a general sense that I've heard from officers that they're just underappreciated and under siege. A lot of the anger - they're directing it at Mayor Lori Lightfoot. There was actually an incident at the hospital the night Officer French was killed, where Lightfoot approached a group of officers, and they turned away and turned their back on her. Lightfoot's actually feeling from - pressure from police and police reformers. She says the police need to be reformed, but she's rejected calls to defund the department.

SIMON: Well, what about bridging the divide? Any efforts?

SMITH: There certainly have been efforts. And, you know, there's been a lot of outpouring of support for police after Officer French's death. But I've heard from officers who actually feel resentful that it's only in tragedy they feel support from the city. There's certainly going to be an outpouring of support on Thursday at Officer French's scheduled funeral.

SIMON: Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ. Patrick, thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.