The morning after six-year-old Brian Fernandez was shot on Chicago’s South Side earlier this month, the newspaper headlines echoed what has become the city’s bloody calling card.
‘Boy, 6, seriously wounded in South Side Shooting’
‘6-year-old boy among several hurt in Chicago shootings’
‘At least Nine People Shot, Including Three Fatally’
The following weekend was as tragic: at least 12 people were wounded by gunfire, including a tourist from Texas who was shot during an apparent drug deal gone awry.
Shooting by shooting, news cycle by news cycle, Chicago’s reputation as America’s most murderous city seems etched further into the national consciousness. But while gun violence in Chicago remains troublesome, the glare of the spotlight drawn to it may be distorting. That’s because gun violence and murders in Chicago are actually down. Way down.
As of November 25, the city had recorded 377 murders, a 20% decline from the 472 that occurred last year by this time. It’s the fewest to date of any year since 1965, according to Chicago police. The total number of shootings and shooting victims is also dramatically down. There have been 692 fewer shooting victims, 2,148 this year compared to 2,840 during the same time period in 2012. And shootings are down by 562, from 2,261 to 1,699.
By those numbers, Chicago is currently on pace to set record lows. But few seem to know it.
“There’s almost been a narrative that’s been written and it doesn’t matter what happens,” said Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who has been careful to call the tumbling crime numbers “progress” rather than “victory.”
McCarthy said the best year the city has had in murders since 1965 was 2011, and the city is on pace to best its 2011 tally with 17 fewer murders so far to date.
“This is my thirty-third year in policing. There’s an ebb and flow that goes with this,” McCarthy said in an interview. “I don’t want to trivialize this. We are talking about life and death scenarios. The gunshots are what we focus on. If you are going to reduce homicides in a place like Chicago, you focus on reducing the gunshots.”
“It’s a day by day, minute by minute grind,” he said, “and we just have to keep winning more than we are losing.”
The steep declines are made that much more dramatic given last year’s nation-leading murder total of 506. Chicago, the country’s third largest city, has indeed been one of the most dangerous. Last year New York City recorded a low of its own with 414 murders. Detroit counted 411 murders. And Philadelphia had 331. Still, despite having the highest number of total murders, Chicago’s 2012 homicide rate didn't even come close to cracking the top 10 among American cities.
“There has become this echo chamber because Chicago had the largest single number of homicides last year, over 500. But there were many, many cities that had higher homicide rates,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
“If you are looking at the numbers alone and not the rate, there’s the perception that the city is the murder capital. It’s definitely a troubling problem that we have as many young people getting shot and shooting people. It’s a very significant problem, but I don’t think it’s portrayed accurately and that portrayal is being spread nationally and internationally.”
McCarthy, who joined the department in 2011, said a number of changes in the way the department polices have helped drive down the city’s stubborn crime statistics.
McCarthy spent 25 years in the NYPD and then 5 years as the chief of police in Newark, New Jersey. He came to Chicago hoping to replicate the dramatic reduction in crime he helped spur in New York.
The department has instituted hot-spot policing, in which whole cadres of additional officers are deployed to neighborhoods throughout the city where a disproportionate amount of violence occurs. Intelligence and technology are also being used to better predict where outbursts of violence might occur, particularly retaliatory and gang-involved violence.
Using an analysis of crime data from the past three years, the police department identified 20 targeted geographic areas that make up just 3% of the city but account for about 20% of violent crimes. Since Feb. 1, when McCarthy flooded those areas with additional officers, the 20 neighborhoods have seen a decrease in murders of 44% and 45% in shootings, McCarthy said.
The department has also expanded walking beats, a practice largely abandoned years ago as officers switched to patrol cars to cover more ground. The department expects to spend $93 million in overtime by year’s end.
It has also worked to better respond to gang flare-ups in real time.
“We did an audit of all the gangs in the city, all the turf that they claim, all the membership of those gangs and who they are in conflict with,” McCarthy said. “We were running into a scenario where the retaliation shootings were happening at a pace we could not keep up with. If we have the intelligence on the ground, if someone gets shot here, we can right on the ground determine who they are in conflict with and respond accordingly.”
Another strategy came from culling arrest records to determine relationships among repeat offenders to determine who might become a target. According to McCarthy, associates in circles of active gang members and criminals are “about 100 times more likely to be involved in gun violence.”
Using the people on the so-called "heat lists," district commanders go to each individual's home and warn them to stay out of trouble, that cops are watching.
Even with the stepped-up efforts by the police department, the fight to tamp down violent crime comes with another battle, that of public perception. In neighborhoods hardest hit by gun violence, the daily drumming of bullet-spray does little to allay the idea that things are as bad as they’ve ever been.
“If you ask me it feels worse, like it went up,” said Ellyson Carter, a community organizer with Action Now, a non-profit social and economic justice group. “We appreciate the police department for trying to make change in the community, but I just don’t trust their numbers. It almost feels like they are covering something up.”
Carter noted a number of recent mass shootings, including one in September in which a gunman opened fire on a basketball court with an assault rifle, wounding 13 people including a 3-year-old boy.
“All you got to do is walk around the neighborhoods and you’ll see the makeshift memorials everywhere, where they set up wine bottles and stuffed animals at some place where somebody got shot,” he said.
Carter said he doesn’t blame the police department for the crime because he said there simply aren’t enough officers to cover the entire city.
But, he said, “it’s frustrating, it’s worrying, because I have young grandsons that are growing up out here, and it’s scary.”
Sheldon Smith, founder of the Dovetail Project, a non-profit that works with young men in some of the city’s most gun-weary neighborhoods, said, “You just can’t feel the difference.”
“If 15 people died in one neighborhood last year and 10 people died this year, people don’t see the difference between the two,” Smith said.
“With everything else going on in the city, taxes going up, gentrification pushing people out, the violence, people just feel like things are getting worse.”
Dennis Rosenbaum, professor of criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said a combination of real fears grounded in quality of life issues and the media’s extensive coverage of violence, has exacerbated the perception of violent crime.
“The reality is there has always been this gap between the crime problem and the fear of crime. There’s a tendency to sensationalize individual cases and not look at the big picture,” Rosenbaum said.
“I think there’s a bias in the media to look at specific cases, or when a child is killed. One child is too many, but it makes people fearful. There’s a sense that anybody at any time can be killed when an innocent child is killed, which is highly improbable.”
McCarthy has been wary of publicly touting the new gains by the department. “We still have a lot of work to do,” McCarthy said. This week’s headlines made that clear.
Through Monday morning, the weekend’s bloodletting, per usual, topped the local news.
‘1 dead, at least 7 hurt in South Side shootings’
‘3 wounded in West, South Side shootings’
‘One Killed, Six Wounded In Shootings Since Friday Evening’
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that six-year-old Brian Fernandez was killed earlier this month.