A City's Sorrow: Chicago on Pace to Finish 2012 with More Homicides Than Any Other City in the U.S.

Nov 1, 2012

Heaven Sutton and her mother, Ashake Banks
Credit Cook County Sheriff's Department
It felt like summer in Chicago, but it was barely spring. In mid-March — a time of year when the highs are usually in the upper 40s — temperatures hit the 80s on eight days during one nine-day stretch. And in some parts of the city, bullets began flying.

Day after day, headlines delivered the grim news: “1 dead as shootings erupt around city”; “Chicago shootings leave 7 dead, 33 hurt”; “CHICAGO COP SHOT”; “Shooting death of girl, 6, marks lethal weekend. ‘She didn’t deserve this,’ mother says”; “49 people are shot citywide, 10 fatally.”

By the end of March, Chicago had already surpassed 100 murders for the year. Homicides were up a staggering 68 percent over the same period in 2011.

Chicago’s problem attracted national attention. On June 25, it was front-page news in which described Mayor Rahm Emanuel as “visibly vexed” during an interview. “We’ve got a gang issue, specific to parts of the city, and we have a responsibility to bring a quality of life to those residents, and we are going to do it,” he told a reporter.

Three days later, a 7-year-old girl named Heaven Sutton was sitting alongside her mother, who was selling candy at a sidewalk stand in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood. As shots erupted down the street, Heaven ran toward her home. Stray gunfire struck her in the back. Half an hour later, she was dead.

“She had no fighting chance,” says the Rev. Ira J. Acree, pastor at the nearby Greater St. John Bible Church. “It’s bad enough that the child was killed. It’s bad when any kid gets gunned down. But when kids are being gunned down in front of their house, on a bus, on a playground, coming out of a church — that’s horrible. This is the West Side. It’s not the wild, wild West.”

By August, the Gawker website declared Chicago “the World’s Deadliest City.” Mother Jones magazine shot back with a blog post debunking Gawker’s statistically dubious claims. “No, Chicago Is Not More Dangerous Than Afghanistan,” Mother Jones retorted.

Chicago could indeed finish the year with more homicides than any other U.S. city. In 2011, the city ranked No. 2, with 430 murders, according to the FBI. New York City was No. 1, with 515.

But this year, Chicago is outpacing New York, even though New York has three times as many people. New York had 319 people who were murdered through Sept. 30, down 18 percent from last year. Meanwhile, 403 people were murdered in Chicago in the first nine months of 2012, a 27 percent increase.

Jerrell Dorsey was charged in the murder of Heaven.
Credit Cook County Sheriff's Department

  Of course, one reason Chicago always ranks high in the number of homicides is simply that it’s the nation’s third-largest city. When the statistics are adjusted for population, a different picture emerges.

In 2011, Chicago had 16 murders for every 100,000 residents — ranking 27th among U.S. cities with a population of 100,000 or more. By the same measure, New Orleans was America’s deadliest city, with a homicide rate 3.6 times worse than Chicago’s.

And as bad as Chicago’s murder numbers are this year, they’ve been worse before. The city’s highest homicide tally ever was in 1974, when 970 people were murdered. Following a decline in population, Chicago had its worst year for homicides per capita in 1994, when 931 people were murdered — 32 for every 100,000 residents.

“The city of Chicago has cut the murders in half in the last 20 years,” says Robert Tracy, chief of crime control strategies for the Chicago Police Department. “But it seems to be getting a lot more press — and rightfully so, because we’re not happy unless there’s zero murders.”

For people who live in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, it’s hard to believe that the murder rate has been cut in half. 

“If you go into some of these communities, it’s like, ‘Cut in half? I don’t see that. … Somebody just shot somebody the other day,’” says Norman Livingston Kerr, vice president of the CITY Project for UCAN, a group that helps youths traumatized by violence.

“When you talk to the victims, the family members who have lost their kids, you’ve got to hear it from their voices — it’s tough for them because they’ve lost somebody,” says Tio Hardiman, the local director for Cure Violence (which was called CeaseFire until a name change in September). “Young people are being shot and killed in record numbers here.”

Murder statistics show huge disparities between Chicago’s neighborhoods. Two-thirds of all murders take place in just 25 of Chicago’s 77 community areas, according to a database compiled by the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye. With a combined population of 750,000, these South and West side neighborhoods are 83 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic. A third of the people in these areas live below the federal poverty level. These neighborhoods are on pace to finish the year with 49 homicides for every 100,000 people.

Meanwhile, through the end of September, not a single person had been murdered this year in 19 of Chicago’s community areas. With a total population of nearly half a million, these neighborhoods — mostly concentrated on the North Side and the city’s central area — are 60 percent white, with a poverty rate of 11 percent.

“As far as poverty goes, we need more jobs here,” Acree says. “That’s just the bottom line. We have a drug economy here, where people can illegally find sources of revenue, and since it’s illegal, it’s enforced by assault weapons and handguns. … Ultimately people are killed and maimed. Many losses of life. I think it’s time in Chicago that the mayor and the business community have a summit and get some jobs back here in the city.”

Experts debate the reasons why crime began decreasing nationwide in the mid-’90s. “It’s not a definitive conclusion, but most people think that the big crime increase in the late ’80s and early ’90s was from the crack cocaine epidemic and the associated violence with that,” says Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. And when crack cocaine use declined, so did the number of homicides.

“Cities like New York and Los Angeles had much more dramatic drops than did Chicago, but the trend was essentially moving in the same direction,” Ander says. But she says this year’s “puzzling” numbers show different trends in different cities. “It doesn’t seem to be a global phenomenon,” she says.

Chicago’s hot weather this year, including that burst of warmth in March, may be one factor. “When you have warm weather, more people are outside, some of whom are carrying guns,” Ander says, and that increases the chances for impulsive violence. An analysis of Chicago police data from 2012 shows that murders are 41 percent more likely to happen on days when the temperature hits 85 or higher.

Police officials emphasize the role that gangs play in the homicide rate. This spring, the police force conducted a “gang audit,” gathering intelligence on the city’s gangs.

“We identified 59 main gangs and 625 factions,” Tracy says. “That’s up about a hundred factions since the last time a gang audit was done similar to this, several years ago. … There’s been an uptick [in violence] this year because of more factions vying for the same area or same market for narcotics.”

Police say most murders are gang-related. A recent Chicago Tribune investigation found that more than a quarter of this year’s murder victims were affiliated with the Gangster Disciples, the city’s largest gang.

Turf wars and gang power struggles aren’t always the motive. In many cases, Tracy says, one gang member attacks another over a personal dispute — such as two guys fighting for the affections of the same girl. But these feuds can spiral into further acts of retaliation between gang factions, Tracy says.

“A lot of these conflicts, it’s really just senseless,” says Andrew Holmes, the director of the anti-crime advocacy group No Guns No Violence, which is based on the South Side. “It’s about nothing. Somebody’s talking about the way this person is dressed. They post it on Facebook. Then there are some conflicts back and forth. Then all of a sudden, they tell them … they’re going to shoot.”


Through the end of September, 72 percent of Chicago’s homicide victims were black, and 64 percent were in their teens or 20s.

Lance Williams says it should be no surprise that shootings are commonplace in neighborhoods where so many young black males have dropped out of school. Williams, the assistant director of Northeastern Illinois University’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, lives in Washington Park, which has Chicago’s highest murder rate so far in 2012. Three people have been killed this year on Williams’ block.

“This is really what’s going on with these guys: They’re suffering from depression, which they treat through self-medication — getting high all day, getting drunk,” he says. “And they’re stuck in those communities, just watching life pass them by. There’s an extreme degree of desperation and hopelessness, and any little thing sparks a violent reaction. I watch them all day, and they just sit around, out in front of their houses, on the corner. They smoke blunts, they get a little drunk. There’s a lot of friction and tension, and it results in violence. This is what’s happening right now.”

Thomas Vanden Berk, the CEO of UCAN, says poverty, gangs and many other social problems are factors in the murder rate, but he stresses the role of guns.

“You have all that fuel,” he says. “Now, throw in a spark, which is the gun — which then erupts all of it, flames it out.”

About 86 percent of Chicago’s murders this year have been shootings. 

“The worst thing you could do is make guns easily accessible to a bunch of stressed, economically disadvantaged and desperate people,” Acree says.

Beginning in 1982, Chicago banned residents from possessing any new handguns. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ordinance in 2010, but it’s still illegal to have a handgun anywhere in Chicago except your home — and even there, you can’t legally possess a gun without a permit from the city.

In 2011, authorities seized 6,023 illegal firearms in Chicago. Adjusted for population, that’s 4.6 times the number of guns seized in New York.

But Ander questions why the Cook County courts don’t impose harsher sentences on people caught with guns. A Sun-Times investigation looked at 8,000 people sentenced between 2005 and March 2012 for gun crimes in Cook County cases that didn’t involve other crimes. About 54 percent got probation. In too many cases, Ander said, “It’s going to be a slap on the wrist.”

Despite Chicago’s strict gun law, thousands of guns still end up in the city — some stolen, some carried by “straw purchasers” who bought them legally before transferring them to someone else.

“Over 52 percent of guns that are found in our crime scenes … are purchased legally,” says Felicia Davis, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement. “And they’re purchased legally in places like Indiana and suburbs just right outside of Chicago.” 

In February, Emanuel called for a statewide gun registry. Tracy says gun owners should be required to tell the state when they lose their guns or give them to someone else. “I don’t think that’s infringing on rights just to ask for that,” he says.

Legislators haven’t taken action on the measure backed by Emanuel, House Bill 5831, since it was referred to the General Assembly’s Rules Committee on March 30.

In January 2011, when Emanuel was a candidate for mayor, he said he would add 1,000 new police officers to Chicago’s streets. As he took office in May, Emanuel picked a new police superintendent: Garry McCarthy, a former top New York police official who had been the chief in Newark, N.J., since 2006.

Under McCarthy, the Chicago police began using CompStat, which employs computers to analyze crime patterns and coordinate quick responses. The same system had been hailed as a factor in New York’s declining crime rates.

The police disbanded specialized strike forces, which would swoop into areas where crime was flaring up. “That type of policing, when you do that, you’re not engaging the community,” Tracy says. “You’re not going to have long-term results.”

Even so, Tracy says, the police can still send extra officers to deal with a local crime wave. Those decisions are now controlled by three deputy chiefs, each of whom oversees one large section of Chicago. Some neighborhoods where the police have focused their attention this year have seen a drop in violence, including Englewood.

The officers from the old strike forces were assigned to regular beats in high-crime neighborhoods. So were many officers who had been in administrative jobs.

Davis says these changes fulfilled Emanuel’s promise to put 1,000 more cops on the street. The mayor’s 2013 budget includes 500 more officers, but some aldermen want at least 1,000 more — at a time when the budget deficit is already expected to hit $298 million. 

Although murders and shootings are up this year, city officials say overall crime is down about 10 percent.

After March’s surge in murders, Emanuel and McCarthy announced a new gang violence reduction strategy. Information collected in this spring’s “gang audit” is now in a computer system that officers can tap into, Tracy says. That helps officers keep track of who’s who in the gangs and who’s likely to retaliate for a shooting.

The police believe they can stop one murder from spiraling into a series of revenge killings. That echoes the strategy of Cure Violence, a group that works to persuade gang members against committing acts of retaliatory violence. For the first time, Cure Violence is working in partnership with the city, using a $1 million grant to put its people on the street in two high-crime police beats. 

The University of Chicago’s Ander praises McCarthy’s strategies. “In many ways, it is out of the playbook of best-practice policing as we know it in this country,” she says. “I am reassured by what I see so far.”

And yet, the police face daunting challenges. So far this year, July is the only month when Chicago has had fewer murders than it did during the same month in 2011.

And then there’s the problem of solving those murders. Over the past two decades, even as murders became less common in Chicago, the percentage of cases solved by the police also dropped. The department’s statistics show that 67 percent of Chicago’s murders in 1991 were “cleared” in the same year — meaning that someone was arrested and prosecuted. (In some cases, if the suspect dies or the state’s attorney declines to prosecute, the police call it an “exceptional” clearance.)

Last year, only 30 percent of Chicago’s murders were cleared.

“We experience a lot of uncooperative witnesses and shooting victims,” Tracy says. “A lot of them are uncooperative about coming forward in a culture of: ‘I don’t snitch. I’m not coming forward on this.’ It’s difficult to make a case if the community’s not coming forward. And that’s something we’re working on. We’re trying to get more community involvement.”

In 2010, a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Chicago Sun-Timeslooked at what happened with the investigations resulting from a weekend in 2008, when 40 people were shot, seven fatally. More than two years later, not a single accused shooter had been convicted. Some cases had “collapsed because the victim refused to testify against the shooter or the victim wasn’t deemed a credible witness,” the paper reported.

The Tribune recently looked at 1,165 nonfatal shootings from the first seven months of 2012 and found a similar pattern: The police had suspended 80 percent of their investigations into these shootings because victims wouldn’t cooperate.

Davis says the city’s “Strong Blocks” program offers one way of changing those attitudes, by helping residents to form block clubs and stand up against crime. “We need people who say: ‘Not on our turf. Not on our ground,’” says Davis, a former police officer.

Beverly Tinsley and her neighbors were already thinking about organizing against the gangbangers on their block in North Lawndale when city officials approached them. “It opened the door for us to come together,” Tinsley says.

Tinsley, 61, grew up on the same street in this West Side neighborhood. She recalls it as a peaceful, happy place where children respected their elders. By the time she moved back last year, young men hung around outside until the early morning hours, selling drugs and fighting among themselves. Children did not play outside, hurrying inside as soon as they got home from school.

“Gangs didn’t just pop up,” Tinsley says. “They’ve always been here and probably always will be. ... But now it’s so blatant and open. And the concern for the next person’s property and life is …” She makes a spitting sound. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

One day in February, Tinsley and her husband heard some young men shouting at each other across the street.

“The next thing you know, we heard gunshots,” she says. “We saw the one guy — it seemed like he had been shot in the stomach. So I’m calling for an ambulance to come. ... And while I’m talking to the dispatcher, some of his friends come and scoop him up in a car. And they drive off. They just dropped him off at the hospital and he died. We found out much later that it was the nephew of the one of the guys we had grown up with. You sit back and you say: Oh, my God. That could be my husband or my son, my daughter — or me! It’s just mind-boggling.”

This spring, city and police officials began meeting with the block’s residents. The people put blue signs in their front windows, declaring: “We call the police.” Police arrested many of the area’s drug dealers and gang members. A squad car was stationed at the end of the block. Residents began taking young children to the library, rewarding them with pizza at the end of the month for reading five books. They’re planning field trips.

Tinsley says the gangbangers are getting the message: Stay away from this block. “And then the little kids started coming out and riding their bikes,” Tinsley says. “Then people started sitting on their porches.” 

Tinsley says her block seems to be winning the battle against crime. Meanwhile, Tracy says police officers are getting to know neighborhoods better by sticking close to their new beats.

“We have officers invested in each area,” he says. “That’s what’s going to help us, block by block, beat by beat, make the city of Chicago safer.” 

Robert Loerzel is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.

Illinois Issues, November 2012