June ended for Chicago with a Stanley Cup trophy, a Pride parade commemorating some major Supreme Court victories, pleasant weather, and a supposedly reduced homicide count. Although the major news publications of the city, let alone Garry and Rahm, have not yet made any announcements on the subject, you can bet that the laudatory articles are coming soon. June 2013 ended with 41 homicides, a seven year low for the historically violent month. That sounds pretty good on paper, especially given the violence reductions that we saw in both February and March earlier this year (of course, giving no mention to a January that was the most violent January for over a decade). The Mayor and the CPD would be the first to admit to the violence, countering that shootings and murders have been down since then in an unprecedented wave of new police strategies. But are homicides really down, and do we really have cause to celebrate before the summer is over?
The table below gives the total number of monthly homicides for the last 7 years. The last row gives the difference between that year's cumulative homicides and the cumulative homicides in 2013. Although Chicago has seen a strictly lower number of killings in 2013 by the same time in previous years, the difference is neither statistically nor crimologically significant.
Looking at it from this perspective, 2013 doesn't look a lot better than many of the previous years. 2013, 2010, and 2008 were obviously the worst years in the population (just look at that jump from 69 total murders in February 2012 to 121 by the end of the next month!), but 2013 isn't much different from 2011 or even 2007. By the same time in 2007, we had 198 murders, a mere 16 more than we currently have. 2011 is even closer, with just 8 more killings than our city has currently seen in 2013. These tiny differences could easily be attributable to the fact that 2013 Chicago had the most rainfall on record since 1887; indeed, when we take that fact into consideration, we might be even more skeptical of a so-called murder decline.
When we look at the numbers on a neighborhood level, things only get worse. A lot worse, in the case of some community areas. The tables below highlight three communities that missed the news about Chicago's declining homicide rate. These have either remained unchanged from previous years of violence or had major upticks this year. Tables give cumulative homicide totals for each year as they add up by month.
Austin, one of three communities that you probably think of when you imagine the high-crime parts of the West Side is one of those neighborhoods where violence remains constant over time. 2013 has been better than some years and worse than others, which is alarming for two reasons. First, Austin was a neighborhood that presumably saw increased police attention in 2013, so it is not encouraging that violence could only get pushed down to 2011 levels. Second, Austin's population has been falling over this time, so violence per capita in 2013 is roughly what it was in 2008 or 2007, when adjusting for changes in population. But at least homicides have had some mobility, even if those changes weren't all positive.
Englewood is another story. We know with certainty that Englewood was a community that received heightened police attention throughout the first months of 2013. We also know that 2013 had the worst weather over the 7 year period, with snow accumulation in February and record rainfall throughout the spring. So that leaves us alarmed and puzzled as to why Englewood is riding a 7 year high in homicides, tied only with 2008, a year that saw total murders over 500. Given the national attention on Chicago violence in and around Englewood, we would expect this to be a lot lower. Admittedly, the Harper spotlight was in West Englewood, an adjacent community in which homicides have declined from previous years. But that isn't very meaningful if all the criminals just packed up and moved next door.
I have a friend in Hyde Park who sells Streetwise papers near the 57th Street restaurants. We talk about crime in his neighborhood, and he alerted me that his home of South Shore was going to be "real bad" this year. The shooting statistics from February and March suggested it, but it wasn't until May and June that the prophecy was really fulfilled. South Shore is a disaster this year. I have now spoken with three natives of the community area and all of them have confirmed what I suspected for months; gangs from Englewood, pressured by intense police scrutiny, have moved to blocks outside of the CPD targeted hot spots. That meant moving into South Shore, and that meant serious disputes over corners. One of my contacts reported seeing small groups of young men roaming the streets, men he had never before seen, looking for rival gang members to intimidate or attack. Given the weather that should have kept crime lower, let alone the police attention that would have come with an uptick in crime, these trends are disturbing.
These observations might sound depressing or alarmist, as it is so tempting to be when discussing Chicago crime. But having spoken with people on the ground, both residents and professionals, and looked over the numbers, the doom-and-gloom is supported by the evidence. It is likely that much of this violence is a direct result of increased police presence and the disruption to gang activity that comes as part of those strategies. So to some extent, you might admit that the strategies are "working". Sadly, that is no consolation for residents of these neighborhoods. And as a final word of caution, it is difficult and potentially misleading to extrapolate any conclusions from small datasets like this, especially in the volatile domain of crime statistics. But my Chicago experience and knowledge helps reinforce my dataset.
Homicides might be down, but the city's crime has not improved. When you read that inevitable article about the falling murder rate, be sure to look at it critically and to challenge those who might be swept up in the Mayor's and newscasters' rhetoric.