Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chicago Crime: 500+ Murders in 2012

As most Chicagoans celebrated the New Year with dancing and clubbing, the Chicago Police Department finalized a grim tally for 2012. By their initial count, 506 Chicagoans were murdered from January 1 through December 31. The RedEye periodical, known for questionable quality and surprisingly accurate homicide statistics, recorded 513 victims. The exact number will remain unclear until the CPD officially classifies some of its cases as "homicides" versus the eyebrow-raising "death investigation". No matter what count you use, however, the fact is that Chicago surpassed 500 homicides, making this the bloodiest year since 2008.

Sadly, everyone saw this coming. As early as March, newspapers across the country reported on the skyrocketing Chicago murder rate, fueled by heightened gang violence and conflicting borders.  Both the Mayor and his Superintendent have been struggling with the national perception of Chicago all year, a perception that was not helped by the continued violence into the summer and autumn. These year-end numbers just finalize our impressions on Chicago's violence.

That said, for many readers, "500" is a relatively arbitrary number. The tally is clearly tragic, but it lacks context. Most people cannot grasp the magnitude of 20 dead, let alone 500. How can we even say that 500 murders is substantially worse than 400? Or 450? Moreover, is it even fair to say that Chicago is that bad compared to other cities in America? These are all incisive questions that everyone should be asking, and I will try to provide a few different lenses through which we can look at this problem.

Chicago is often considered the New York City of the Midwest, America's "Second City". From a population perspective, we rank 3rd in the country behind NYC and Los Angeles, with Houston and Philadelphia rounding out the top 5. The social and criminological dynamics of large urban centers is quite different from that of smaller cities and rural areas, so it makes sense to compare murders between those different metropolises. Is Chicago really that different from the others?

As you might have guessed based on the sheer existence of this blog, the answer is an almost unqualified "Yes". The table below shows the different murder totals, populations, and per-capita rates (murders per 100,000 residents) of the largest American cities. I also included a column that showed the percent change in murders from 2011 to 2012, so we can see if these cities improved or worsened between the two years. The table has been sorted by the murder rate itself; "rates" are generally a better respected measurement than raw totals.

City Population # of Murders Murder rate (per 100,000) % Change from 2011-2012
Philadelphia 1,536,471 329 21.4 +1.54%
Chicago 2,707,120 506 18.7 +13.45%
Houston 2,145,146 199 9.3 +2.05%
Los Angeles 3,819,702 294 7.7 +1.03%
New York City 8,244,910 414 5.0 -19.61%
(Numbers compiled by Merry Herbst, first-year graduate student at SSA. Not all tallies reflect officially authorized or totaled statistics)

First of all, it wouldn't be a bad idea to start a Philadelphia Warrior blog; that city's murder rate was definitely the unspoken crime problem of the year. Returning to Chicago, however, it is pretty clear that this city has some serious issues. Not only was our murder rate way too high (twice that of the next highest), but our homicides had the biggest increase between 2011 and 2012.

For me, the most revealing comparison is between Chicago and NYC. These two cities have booming economies, world-class businesses and industries, and comparable demographics. During the 1960s-1990s, they had similar problems with gangs, housing projects, distressed neighborhoods, and policing. Philadelphia, although definitely comparable to the two, is just not quite in the same category as Chicago or NYC (no offense to my dear Philly phriends and phanatics).

It is downright embarrassing that an ostensibly successful and vibrant city as Chicago has a murder rate three times as high as its direct East Coast counterpart. It is equally alarming that our murders increased so much in one year. Crimes certainly fluctuate, and it is dangerous to read too much into one year's worth of data, but a 13.45% increase is pretty indicative that something happened this year. My previous posts alluded to this (a change in gang conflict patterns and territory), but these numbers drive the point home. Of all the other biggest cities, excepting Philadelphia, Chicago evidently has a sizable murder problem. And from a raw murder total, the city still earns its grizzly title of "The Murder Capital"

Although Chicago stands out amongst American cities for its total homicide victims, it is by no means the country's murder capital for murder rates. To offer another perspective on Chicago's murders, we looked at 2012 statistics for some of the historically most-dangerous cities in America, with names like New Orleans, Detroit, and Bodymore. These cities lack the resources of Chicago, especially in terms of law enforcement and social services, a fact reflected in their homicide rates. The table below compares Chicago with other dangerous cities in America using the same metrics as before. While it is by no means comprehensive, it gives some sense of Chicago's national standings.

City Population # of Murders Murder rate (per 100,000) % Change from 2011-2012
Detroit 706,585 375 53.1 +9.01%
New Orleans 360,740 187 51.8 -6.03%
St. Louis 318,069 113 35.5 +0.00% (yep. identical in 2011)
Chicago 2,707,12050618.7+13.45%
Washington D.C. 617,996 86 13.9 -20.37%
(Numbers compiled by Merry Herbst, first-year graduate student at SSA. Not all tallies reflect officially authorized or totaled statistics)
Add Detroit Warrior and New Orleans Warrior to the list. To use a social work term, these cities have a serious amount of need. They need more police, more agencies, better schools, more people, and definitely more money. It is no coincidence that the two worst cities on that list have also suffered from major disasters, albeit of different natures, in the last decade. Detroit's economy imploded, and now it has more murders than Philadelphia, Houston, and even Los Angeles, despite being half their size. New Orleans suffered heavily from Katrina, and now its homicide rate is almost that of Detroit.

Chicago may have problems, but not to the same extent as Detroit or New Orleans. Our murder rate is brought down by all of the affluent, low-crime neighborhoods in the city, where the worst crime to get logged is failure to clean up after your sweater-wearing dog. Detroit and New Orleans as WHOLE CITIES have murder rates that match some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago. I can only imagine what their Englewoods and Woodlawns are like.

In looking at homicides in both large cities and historically dangerous cities, we find a relevant context in which to consider Chicago. Although our city certainly faces a dire murder problem, it is by no means alone; Detroit and New Orleans have equally, if not worse, situations that their police and mayor's offices are dealing with.

It is unfortunate that homicides are so widely focused on. It turns out that murders are a terrible measure of citywide crime. Aggravated batteries, specifically shootings, are a much better metric. After all, murders are just shootings in which the target dies. The vast majority of Chicago gunmen are shooting to kill, or at the least do not care if their target dies. The only thing that murders consistently measure are ambulance response times, hospital effectiveness, and the severity of the wound. Shootings are a much better gauge of violence because they represent the criminal, harmful intent of attackers, not just the oftentimes random consequences of an attack.

If we want to see how bad murders were in Chicago, and by extension the intensity of citywide crime, we should also look at shootings. I focus on shootings; handgun violence accounts for a disproportionate percent of homicides in the city, especially gang-related attacks. It is also one of the primary focuses of most CPD strategies.

Using Chicago Data Portal, I compared shooting statistics over the last few years. Murder numbers are also included for the sake of comparison. The results are compiled below. All data reflects the January 1 through December 27 range (the last few days of 2012 are not yet available as of this posting).

Year # Murders # Nonfatal Shootings
2012 506 1869
2011 435 1716
2010 436 1838
2009 459 1800
2008 513 1971
2007 448 1712

With the exception of 2008, this year had both the highest murder and shooting totals in the last 6 years. So to some extent, the worry around 2012 Chicago violence is grounded in fact. But on the other hand, the difference between these 6 years are actually quite negligible when you compare them. 2012, with its 506 murders, had basically the same number of shootings as 2010, a year that only saw 436 murders. So while Chicago's 2012 violence was higher than previous years, it does not appear that this difference was substantial.

As you might imagine, there is a very strong correlation between murders and shootings in this dataset (r = .8!). An R of 1 would mean a perfectly linear relationship. Even .8 means an exceedingly strong correlation almost unseen in social sciences. It shows that in a year with more shootings, we would also consistently expect there to also be more murders. On some level, this is partially a function of probability; more people get shot, more people die from shootings. In that sense, it isn't particularly interesting from a sociological perspective. But it is also possible that more shootings is indicative of a generally more violent city climate, one in which there are more attacks and incidents, or where shooters are particularly intent on injuring a victim.

This data suggests that although Chicago faced a bloody year, the overall crime patterns were still quite similar to those of the last six years. This might indicate that Chicago violence has really not gotten much worse or better in all that time, a theory that many criminologists would likely support. Chicago gangs today, small cliques of young, loosely organized individuals, are similar to those in any of the past six years. 2012 just appears to be yet another chapter in this new saga of gang and street conflict that our city is now facing. It may have been a slightly more tumultuous year than others, but it was not the first (that was 2008), and it will certainly not be the last.

The Mayor and CPD realize that they have a serious crime problem on their hands. Changing circumstances of gang and street violence are no longer addressable through pure policing. Beat cops, mobile strike teams, CompStat, and all the other elements of the New York City 1990s police playbook are not going to cut it in this new crime environment. Mr. McCarthy must understand that now after his first year on the job. Mayor Emanuel, with his endless quest for innovative solutions to Chicago's historic problems, probably knew this from the instant he stepped into office.

This returns us to our initial question about the number 506 (or whatever the final tally will be). I have provided a lot of context in which to consider that number. Most of you by now will be convinced that it is too high, both relative to other cities, and relative to Chicago's previous totals. Even those who had no knowledge of crime could have just glanced at that number and seen a tragedy.

But despite all of this, there is another conclusion we could draw. I do not think that 506 murders is really any more outrageous than 435 murders. The former is basically a termination slip for the superintendent. The latter is a raise. But 435 is still too many murders, regardless of historical or national context.

The solution lies in violence prevention, not violence response. And the core of violence prevention lies in social services, not policing. Those who wish to reduce violence must work to change norms and behaviors, not just which gangs occupy a given corner. It does not come down to removing handguns from the streets, but to showing young men that there are other ways to handle conflict than weapons. Policing efforts might be able to bring murders from 506 to 435, but only through groundlevel work in schools, homes, and agencies will we be able to drop them below even that.

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