Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chicago Crime: Is overall city crime actually down?

In a recent MSNBC interview, Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked about politics, Chicago, and (of course), Chicago's violence. As in most of his media events, he acknowledged the rising violence, but countered that the city has seen an overall crime reduction. Here is the quote.

"We have a-- a gang issue on parts of the city.  Overall, overall crime [is] down 10 percent.  And we’re making efforts actually to reduce the gang conflicts because it’s gang-on-gang issues."

Given that this is the only positive point about our 2012 crime statistics, I can't blame Mr. Emanuel for repeating it whenever he gets in front of a camera. Never mind that overall American crime has consistently dropped for years. Never mind that Emanuel and McCarthy cannot really take credit for a decade-long trend. The bottom line for them is simple: If overall crime were not dropping, the CPD and Mayor would have an even more embarrassing problem than just that of rising violence. At least burglaries, vehicular theft, vandalism, and all other delinquency has dropped.

But has it really? On a whim, I went to the Chicago Data Portal to check out the crime data and confirm Emanuel's 10% reduction. It was hard to believe that the Mayor would loudly cite a number that was untrue. Then again, Chicago politicians are not exactly known for their transparency and honesty. The whole business called for a little verification.

My findings were baffling.

I expected to see crime down 8.5 or 9.5%. You couldn't fault Emanuel for fudging that into 10% to give himself and the brave men and women of the CPD some credit. Instead, I saw that crime was barely down at all.

Total Crimes 1/1/2011-8/20/2011: 223383
Total Crimes 1/1/2012-8/20/2012: 214953
Difference: 8430
% Difference: 3.8%

You would just be lying if you claimed that a 3.8% reduction was anything close to a 10% reduction. Numbers that small don't deserve special recognition. They are just too miniscule to prove a pattern.

Giving Mayor Emanuel the benefit of the doubt, I thought that there was more to the story than just a blatant numerical lie. Even if overall crime was only down 3.8%, maybe other subcategories of crime reflected the ideal 10% reduction. After all, if the CPD successfully reduced violent and property crime by a sizable amount, maybe the Mayor's optimism would be justified.

Let's take a look at other major crime categories to find that elusive 10% reduction. All data concerns the 1/1 - 8/20 period (2011 and 2012), as that is where we have numbers for this current year. I considered a wide range of crimes in making this table. The average Chicagoan is unlikely to be affected by gun violence or robbery, but burglary and car theft is a very real danger. In doing so, I wanted to see if any particular category of crime had dropped (or risen) in this so-called 10% reduced crime year.

Crime 2011 2012 Difference % Change
Battery 40515 40141 -374 -.93%
Robbery 8374 8145 -229 -2.77%
Burglary 16126 13919 -2207 -14.7%
Theft 45977 46047 +70 +.15%
Weapons Violation 2418 2446 +28 +1.51%
Criminal Sexual Assault 879 831 -48 -5.61%
Motor Vehicle Theft 12798 10965 -1833 -15.4%

It turns out that Chicago crime has actually improved in the last year, even if local/national media likes to focus on the violence uptick. Burglary and motor vehicle theft have dropped by 15% in one year. That's a sizable enough decline that I would be comfortable crediting new policing strategies (in addition to other factors). Burglary and car theft are not confined to distressed communities, although they are more prevalent there. Anyone from the Gold Coast to Andersonville can have their car stolen or their home broken into. It is overall good news that these incidents are declining.

If I were Mayor Emanuel or one of his advisers, I would emphasize the 15% drop in these two crimes. Property crime, while not as tragic as violence, can be a serious fear for the average city resident. Highlighting a sweeping 10% reduction in overall crime is too nebulous for most citizens. Refocusing on these two property crimes makes the CPD anti-crime strategies more concrete, bolstering Chicagoan confidence.

The news on violent crime, however, is far less positive. CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy has instituted a staggering number of strategic reforms in 2012. Just from memory alone, I can list eight:
  1. Gang audits
  2. Violence boxes
  3. Storefront targeting
  4. Saturation policing
  5. Following gang social media
  6. CompStat
  7. Increased overtime authorization
  8. CPD/CeaseFire partnership
Eight strategies for a .9% decrease in battery. Looks like it is time for a new one! Yes, there are other factors at play in crime fluctuation, and it is unfair to place blame entirely on the CPD or McCarthy. But insofar as Emanuel is touting a fabricated 10% crime reduction, we need to get down to Chicago's grizzly reality. Crime is too high where it matters most and our politicians misrepresent its severity.

The next time you hear any local media or officials spouting on about the "good news" when it comes to crime, put on your skeptic's glasses and look closer. Crime is not down 10%. Some property crime has decreased substantially, but Mayor Emanuel has no reason to feign optimism given the state of our streets. There are still a few months left in the year for a turnaround, but I'd bet on a pro-choice Romney before I bet on that.

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