If You Want to Stop Murders in Chicago ...
... well, first, you need to understand why they happen in the first place
Pete Saunders | Corner Side Yard
I’ve done this before, and it’s time to do it again. I want America to understand the forces at work when it comes to Chicago’s crime challenges.
Chicago stays in the national news thanks to its nation-leading number of murders. Media outlets of all types – right, left, center – highlight Chicago as America’s latest example of urban dystopia. Chicago is presented as an outlier among large cities, but it’s not – and jumping to easy conclusions doesn’t help Chicago or any major American city plagued with violence.
Personally, I think American media, our institutions, and citizens in general, all like to identify one place as the symbol of all the problems related to an issue. This phenomenon cuts across the political spectrum. Many on the right believe that urban lawlessness and unrest that arose in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests in 2020 are simply the latest example of a nation out of control. Republicans believe they have a winning strategy in the upcoming midterm elections. At the same time, many on the left seem to think that everything that is wrong in America is a result of our election of Donald Trump in 2016. The continual lies and corruption of the Trump administration, they believe, can be exposed and convince people to turn away from the GOP for good. That’s at the heart of January 6 subcommittee hearings we see now; Democrats also believe exposing Trump is a winning strategy in the midterms.
Neither position leaves much room for nuance in an environment that desperately needs it. In both cases, straw men have been set up to symbolize the problems they’re designed to confront.
The multiple Trump administration people who may (or may not) receive charges for their roles in the January 6 insurrection or the general administration corruption, or the thousands of people who stormed the Capitol will, at worst, have a day in court when a jury can decide whether they are a threat to our democracy. If convicted they will receive the punishment afforded by our imperfect, yet still recognized and functional, legal system. At best, fatigue sets in and a nation decides to move on from our sad recent history to focus on inflation, gas prices, the sliding economy, anything else that has urgency in our lives.
As a city, Chicago has no such options. It’s being charged in the court of public opinion, and it’s been convicted already. This despite the very real fact that there are lots of nuances that go into understanding what’s happening in Chicago, and in other large cities as well.
If you’re really interested in finding out what’s going on in Chicago, I encourage you to look at the five facts below …
Murders in Chicago have gone up considerably since 2014
I think things like perceptions of violent crime should be put in a historical context, not simply what one feels in the moment. In 2014, Chicago had its fewest murders since 1966, with 414. Since then the number of murders has risen dramatically, reaching 850 last year. Without question that is a startling increase. Any loss of life due to violence is a tragedy and it’s touched far too many families.
Chicago’s historic dip in murders through 2014, and dramatic rise since, is consistent with other large cities nationwide
Murders increased in nearly all major cities in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In Chicago’s case it went from 396 in 1965 to an all-time peak of 970 by 1974. The numbers generally trended downward for several years before reaching a peak of 943 in 1992. After that, Chicago witnessed the same kind of slide that other major cities like New York and Los Angeles saw, but generally stayed higher due to other forces I’ll explain later. Since 2014 the trend in murders has been upward among all large cities, Chicago included.
Violent crime during Chicago’s peak years in the 70’s and 90’s was far more concentrated during that earlier time
The concentration of violent crime is something well understood by police officers and researchers - but I’d argue that murders in low-income minority communities received far less coverage than today. Certainly, high-profile murders were sensationalized by local media and continue to be so. However, many murders were relegated to a couple sentences in the metro section of the local paper and not covered by television media at all. Segregation was largely responsible for both.
Chicago ranked 10th out of the 100 largest U.S. cities for murders per 100,000 people in 2019
I’ve thrown around a lot of absolute numbers that can be quite distressing if viewed with no context. In 1992, the year Chicago hit its next-highest peak with 943 murders, New York City had 1,995. There were nearly 2,600 murders in Los Angeles County that year. The FBI and police departments are better at compiling (and releasing) data on violent and property crimes since the 90’s and putting them in the context of rates of occurrence. In 2019, the latest year that reliable national data has been compiled by the FBI, Chicago’s murder rate was 24.13 per 100,000 people. Chicago’s rate was substantially higher than New York’s (3.39, ranking 80th) and Los Angeles’ (7.01, ranking 63rd).
Illinois has some of the most restrictive state gun laws in the nation, yet guns imported from suburban Chicago and Indiana account for 60 percent of recovered “crime guns”
In 2017 the Chicago Police Department released a gun trace report to identify the location of purchase for guns used in alleged crimes. CPD recovers about 7,000 guns annually as they investigate crimes, significantly more than New York or Los Angeles. There are no licensed gun dealers in the city of Chicago. The report found that 40 percent of guns were purchased in suburban Chicago, with one in ten purchased from just two gun stores located near the city’s borders. Another 20 percent were purchased in Indiana, a state with far less restrictive gun laws, at stores within an easy driving distance from all parts of Chicago.
If you really want to understand why Chicago has what appears to have an intractable violent crime problem, you could not do better than the two points below …
Chicago's high murder rate can be partly attributed to two global disruptions in the last 20 years: The Great Recession and The COVID pandemic
Lots of academics and pundits have connected these two events to recent spikes in violent crime nationwide, and Chicago is no different. A 2014 paper published for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that while foreclosure alone does not increase violent crime, violent crime does increase on average by 19 percent once the home becomes vacant – and that percentage increases the longer the property remains vacant. Similarly, a March 2021 report found that while property crimes decreased nationally during the first year of the pandemic, violent crimes like murder saw an increase. No recent data has been compiled, but anecdotal evidence suggests that violent crime levels are still elevated in part because of the pandemic.
Chicago's high murder rate might also be partly attributed to two local disruptions in the last 20 years: The demolition of thousands of public housing units and the closure of more than 50 public schools
After decades of mismanagement leading to highly concentrated, distressed housing with high crime plaguing its system, the Chicago Housing Authority put in place its Plan for Transformation in October 1999. The goal was ambitious: CHA wanted to demolish or rehabilitate up to 25,000 units of public housing, with the promise of creating more mixed-income neighborhoods that would reduce inequality and increase opportunity for its residents. The agency was successful in the demolition of public housing and was able to rid the city of a symbol of failure to its poorest citizens. But CHA was far less successful in its ability to produce replacement housing, mixed-income or otherwise. Many low-income CHA residents were left to fend for themselves with housing vouchers and the hopes that landlords would honor them. CHA has moved on from the ambitious plan, but the disruption and displacement of the era continues to plague former residents.
Similarly, the closure of 50 Chicago Public Schools in 2013, mostly located in the city's heavily Black South and West sides, led to disruption and displacement of another kind. It was called the nation’s largest public school closure and affected as many as 12,000 students. Chicago Public Schools had dealt with poorly performing schools and crushing deficits for decades and finally had to act. However, the implementation of the ambitious plan, just like the Plan for Transformation, was chaotic and disruptive. Neighborhoods lost local institutions, children sent to unfamiliar and unwelcoming places. Because Black population in Chicago had been in decline, leaving behind many underutilized as well as under-performing schools, low-income Black families were asked to bear the greatest burden of school closure.
These are the forces at work in Chicago. They’re different from the forces that make St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis and Atlanta among the most violent cities in the nation today. They’re also different from the forces that make New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle safer than Chicago today. Each city has its own narrative.
I really don’t expect people to seek out nuance when they believe they already know the cause and the solution. That goes for people locally who see this up close, as well as outsiders who view our troubles from afar. But, they should.