The homicide rate is probably the top political story in Chicago so far this year, with an approximately 30 percent citywide increase in murders between 2011 and 2012 and a succession of new pronouncements from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy on how they are responding to the problem.
The homicide rate is probably the top political story in Chicago so far this year, with an approximately 30 percent citywide increase in murders between 2011 and 2012 and a succession of new pronouncements from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy on how they are responding to the issue.
Unfortunately, the solution is complicated in terms of what local political leaders and also specific Chicago communities can do regarding a problem that stirs much emotion. The Chicago homicide rate has, in fact, gone down, significantly and continually, over the last 20 years. However, citywide numbers do not provide a complete picture because of the enormous fluctuations in homicides between neighborhoods.
Addressing the homicide problem looks to be an issue of addressing social and economic segregation as much as any change in law enforcement tactics.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Homicide Statistics
The daily coverage of homicides, for example stories on the number of city murders reported over a weekend or over a month, can elide the larger citywide trend. According to Chicago Police Department crime data, there were 308 murders at the end of July putting Chicago on pace to have 528 homicides by the end of 2012.
But last year’s murder rate was the lowest since 1965. There will almost certainly be far fewer homicides in 2012 than there were in, for example, 1992, when police recorded 943 murders or 1974 when city murders peaked at 970.
The murder rate in Chicago, and nationally, has gone down, while other major social problems including unemployment, home foreclosures, and poverty have grown worse over the past few years. Put another way, the decline in murders is one of the few ways in which the city and country are making measurable, long-term social progress.
As for the spike in 2012, James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied Chicago crime issues, says unequivocally that it is a “statistical aberration.”
Fox compares 2012 with 2008, a year in which the police department recorded 510 murders compared to 445 killings in 2007. The Chicago City Council held hearings in the summer of 2008 that pilloried erstwhile Police Superintendent Jody Weis for the rise in homicides. One year later, the homicide rate resumed its decline, though Weis remained unpopular throughout his tenure.
Albert Lurigio, a psychologist at Loyola University of Chicago who studies violence in the city, also says that homicide trends must be measured over years, not months. “The fluctuations of month to month are usually not significant,” Lurigio says.
He believes that homicides “are an indicator and symptom of a community in distress.”
“It never occurs in isolation from other social problems,” Lurigio says.
Mad and Tired in Austin
West Side Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) is not impressed by the long-term citywide decline in murders. Asked about whether these statistics provide hope, Mitts said, “It was hopeful for the areas that it went really down in.”
Much of the 37th Ward is located in the Austin neighborhood, one of 77 Chicago neighborhood areas. Since the start of 2007, there have been 199 murders in Austin, according to data compiled by the Chicago Tribune. Austin is the most populous of the city's 77 neighborhoods with 98,000 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
But the greater population cannot account for the disparity between Austin and, for example, Lincoln Park. The affluent near North Side neighborhood had a population of 64,000 in 2010 – and six murders total since the start of 2007. Lakeview, the most populous neighborhood after Austin, with 95,000 people including the Emanuel family, has recorded 11 homicides since 2007.
Mitts says that responding to murders has become a permanent part of her job.
“You get mad and tired of going to funerals,” she says, adding that “violence overshadows the work we could be doing” to improve Austin. Part of the problem, Mitts says, is community disinvestment, with Austin having the highest number of foreclosed homes in the city. Also, the neighborhood unemployment rate has gone north of 30 percent in the economic downturn.
“There is an interrelationship in the community between the economics and violence,” says Phillip Jackson, former head of the Chicago Housing Authority and now executive director of the Black Star project, which provide services to CPS students on the South and West Sides.
Jackson says that many of the teenagers he works with would “gladly take a minimum wage job”, but are cast aside and drawn to “the economic black market.”
Mitts would like to see a better organization of neighborhood block clubs “so people are not afraid to share what is going on.” Another step the alderman would like to see is enforcement of a curfew ordinance Emanuel signed into law last year. The ordinance prevents youths 16 years of age and younger from being out past 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. Nonetheless, Mitts says overall the police are doing a good job, particularly identifying gang members who may initiate violence. “We cannot just say the police need to do a better job,” Mitts says. “We need to do a better job in our community.”
Austin has been economically disadvantaged and plagued by violence for decades. So has West Englewood, which has suffered 135 murders since 2007, and North Lawndale, which has seen 91 killings over the last five years.
Chaos in Chatham
Like these neighborhoods, Chatham on the South Side is more than 90 percent black. Unlike Austin, Chatham has a reputation for social and economic prosperity. In 1986, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series called “The Chatham Story” that profiled the “upwardly mobile blacks” who were “building a community of excellence.” Residents then included Roland Burris, briefly a U.S. Senator, and Eugene Sawyer, briefly a Chicago mayor.
But Chatham has gradually changed. The Chicago Sun-Times Mary Mitchell reported in a column last year that poverty and unemployment in the neighborhood is significantly up, while the population is down. Also, Mitchell noted that while serious crime is down in Chatham, as it is citywide, certain police beats in the neighborhood are the most violent in the city. Overall, Chatham has had 63 homicides since 2007, an above average number for the city considering the neighborhood population amounted to just 31,000 people in 2010.
The alderman of Chatham is Roderick Sawyer, son of former Chicago mayor Eugene Sawyer. Sawyer defeated 6th Ward incumbent Freddrenna Lyle in a run off last year as voters expressed concern about increased violence and loitering. Sawyer says that a prevailing resident complaint is that former public housing project tenants have moved into the neighborhood and provoked violence.
“People are coming from the public housing program and may not realize how things are done in Chatham,” Sawyer says.
However, the alderman says that it is unfair to blame new neighborhood residents or even economic stresses. The problem boils down “to the inability to deal with personal conflict.” On this point, he agrees with Lurigio, the Loyola professor, that the city was wise to start coordinating with Ceasefire this May. Ceasefire, which gained prominence partly due to the 2011 documentary The Interrupters, treats violence as a public health issue. The group counsels gang members to prevent personal conflicts from becoming violent. “I like what Ceasefire does because they get to the core of the matter,” Sawyer says.
Jackson of Black Star says what is happening in communities like Austin and Chatham is a larger issue of social disinvestment, with violence being one symptom of the problem. Asked if the changing city homicide rate affects his group’s work, Jackson says, “Absolutely not. We continue to get the same reports from our community leaders.”