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Crime in Chicago: a look behind the numbers

Andrew Papachristos takes a look behind the numbers in Chicago crime
Andrew Papachristos takes a look behind the numbers in Chicago crime
Andrew Papachristos (used with permission)

The headlines in nearly all of the newspapers in Chicago, over the last few weeks, have been awash in reporting the violence that has been seen across the city, especially the homicides.

Some examples: “City Hits 100 Homicides”, and “Girl, 14, fatally shot near home”, or “38 dead in one weekend.”

These have raised the concern of citizens, politicians, and pundits alike, and all giving various responses to what now seems to be almost routine anger, moral horror, and the like.

Also, the pictures of grieving families, their heads bent in grief, or embracing, as stunned onlookers stand nearby, with mothers keening their sorrow in the arms of other women.

The suggestions have given the city a name, “murder capital of the country,” or even, “murder country of the world.” But, hyperbole aside, the concern is legitimate and the lives of children are at peril – especially in the West and South Sides of the city, where most of the homicides have occurred, and largely populated by people of color.

Some have blamed the sporadic increases in temperature in an otherwise reluctant spring, as inevitable, as research has shown.

Others see it as an uptick, or harbinger to come, as expectations of a hot summer seem to be expected after an unusually harsh winter.

Police, according to the Chicago Tribune, “has cancelled days off on weekends for dozens of cops on tactical, saturations and gun teams in certain high-crime neighborhoods as violence has picked up in recent weeks with the arrival of warmer weather.”

In addition rookie cops have been assigned to street patrols in high crime areas, aided by 120 veteran officers working overtime in these same areas.

With the creation of a plan called the Summer Surge Overtime Initiative, hopes are up, but concerns are still rampant, especially among members of the African American community on whose numbers the statistics fall.

While Chicago police have not confirmed the existence of the plan, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has, again, called for stricter gun laws and noted the “significant drops in violent crime over the past two years.”

But, he did acknowledge that “there are going to be spikes and there are going to be valleys,” perhaps in a nod to what some see as an uptick in crime, in Chicago, whatever, the reason.

One local columnist noted that there were over 5,000 murders since 2002 and that while the anger is justified, bewilderment is appropriate, but asked, morally, how the murders could be accepted.

But, behind the headlines, some have asked what the numbers really mean, and others have taken an examination of the numbers in lieu of the decrease in violent crime across the nation.

While some adherents of pure math might support the numbers, others have wondered if accuracy can meet the perception.

To help get answers to the numbers reported, I spoke with Chicago native, Loyola graduate, and Yale professor, Andrew Papachristos, Associate Professor of Sociology, Public Health and Law at Yale University, who in an unpublished paper, “48 Years of Crime in Chicago: A Descriptive analysis of Serious Crime trends from 1965 to 2013,” has taken a historical view of “temporal and spatial trends of major index crime in Chicago, during those years.

Of the many important areas that he looked at, both geographically, and numerically he notes that despite a national downward trend in violent crime, that “rates of decline were greater in some communities that others.” In fact, as he said, “over the past three years, for example all but five communities (out of 77) experienced declines in violent crime,” and “While the drop in violent crime is shared between low and high crime areas alike, there remain areas of the city where violent crime rates are unacceptably high.”

The objective for Papachristos’ paper, however, “is to simply document these historical trends and not to assign any casual interpretations of the vanguards of crime rates of this period.”

One of the most necessary tasks that he does is an “apple to apples” comparison comparing violent crime in Chicago to those of comparable size – 250,000 or more. While it might have seemed obvious, many reports, especially outside of academia have not taken this route, because, of course, in the jargon of old-time journalists: bad news sells. And, in the public mind outweighs other considerations.

Using a timeline from January to November 2013, Papachristos notes that the city “has seen impressive declines in crime over the last four and half decades.”

Based on data from the Unites States Department of Justice and the Chicago Police Department, he says in the report that “the overall levels of crime and violence have fallen to record lows as the year 2013 comes to a close.”

And, most notably he concludes that, “Compared to other cities of similar sizes (250,000 or more people served), Chicago is by no means the “murder capital” or “crime capital” of the U.S.”

While those figures may seem startling, by the standard of the recent headlines, “Chicago’s citywide rate of 876.21 per 100,000 in 2012,” brings it much closer to those of Boston and Oklahoma City, and “half that of cities like Detroit, Memphis and Baltimore.”

This is not to suggest that there is not work to be done, in fact there remains much to be done, especially in areas such as Englewood, for example, which Papachristos notes “had the highest rates of homicide in 2005,” even though relative rates in other Chicago communities “have declined over time.”

Continuing with the trend, he noted “Englewood, which had an average homicide rate of almost 58 per 100,000 residents in 2000-2009 had a homicide rate of 52 during the 1970-1979 period 30 years previously, whereas Irving Park, with an average homicide rate in 2000-2009 of just under 5.0 faced a similarly low average rate of 5.46 in 1970-1979.”

If, as his paper reports, one takes a historical view of the top 30 violent crime rates across the nation’s major metropolitan areas, in 2012, Chicago rates number 24, sandwiched between the aforementioned Oklahoma City and Boston, but well behind Detroit, Oakland (California) even nearby Indianapolis, or Washington, DC who score top rankings.

But, paramount to his study is the inequality of violent crimes in neighborhoods, well documented in the popular media; crime is not equalized by neighborhood. “In fact, recent research suggests that some neighborhoods—especially socially and economically disadvantaged communities—continue to have stubbornly high levels of crime,” Papachristos noted.

To no one’s real surprise, “the highest rates of homicide and violence concentrated on the West and South sides of the city [are] in predominately African American communities such as East and West Garfield Park, Englewood, and Fuller Park. For example, the average homicide rate from 2000-2010 in West Garfield Park was nearly 64 per 100,000 residents, whereas the average homicide rate in Jefferson Park, located on Chicago’s Northwest side, was only 3.10 per 100,000 residents.”

Despite the efforts of Chicago police, gangs and their role in violent crime have been consistent since 1993 when the U.S Department of Justice, in a report, titled, “Street Gang Crime in Chicago”, noted that “The rate of street gang-motivated crime in the 2 most dangerous areas was 76 times that of the 2 safest,” a conclusion that Papachristos supports in this recent paper.

He emphasizes that, “Gangs in Chicago have and continue to play an important role in the city’s homicide problem.”

Gang activity follows a trend when the crime rate peaked, along with violent activity, then decreased, but, then remained relatively stable from 2001 to 2010, in the analysis.

The paper notes, “this has an important implication for the overall composition of homicide in Chicago: as non-gang homicide falls and gang homicides remain stable, it means that a greater proportion of all homicides in the city involve members of street gangs”

But, he is careful to note that while “homicides are more likely to involve a gang member then no,” it “in no way means the homicides are motivated by gangs or gang-related disputes, but rather that homicides simply involve members of street gangs.”

Significantly, the patterns have changed from those members of the same gang, “as opposed to those in which victim and offender were members of the same or related gangs.”

While the paper reports numerical trends and not causations, its value lies in seeing the reality behind the numbers that gives more of an accurate, if not balanced understanding of violent crime in the nation’s second largest city.

The role of race, racial segregation, and other social-economic factors cannot be overlooked for future study. For as Papachristos notes in his summary, “The objective of this report was to analyze Chicago’s crime rates within a historical context so as to better understand longer patterns as well as contemporary rates.”

While no one study can account for all, neither can it be a predictor, for as statisticians are wont to say, “Correlation is not causation;” but the issues behind the numbers are there: “the demolition of high-rise public housing, the gentrification and development of particular neighborhoods, shifts in patterns of employment and jobs, changes in policing strategies and tactics,” to name but a few.

What Chicago has seen recently in recent crime may be less of an “uptick”, and more of “short term fluctuations,” for as he told me: “What does 30 people killed over a weekend mean? It means 30 people lost their lives or were injured, and 30 families will never be the same.”

He also stressed that, “The number is "high" relative to some points of reference, but low relative to others. But neither of those interpretations changes those injuries or deaths. Does it mean Chicago is going to experience another "gun violence epidemic"? You just can’t tell from one weekend. [and] "year to date numbers" are equally bad, until you get closer to November at predicting anything.”

Meanwhile Chicagoans wait, and wonder, muse, and reflect, and pray – together with the grieving families of those that have died.

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