Sunday, January 27, 2013

Chicago Crime: 25 degrees, 6 homicides, 4 siblings

Conventional wisdom holds that warm weather leads to high crime. March 2012 was an unseasonably balmy month, which led to an unbelievable spike in Chicago violent crime from which we never recovered. Similarly, cold weather tends to have the opposite effect. Criminals, much like the rest of us, prefer to stay bundled inside rather than roaming the windblasted Chicago streets. That was certainly true in New York City, where the recent cold front has also frozen the homicide rate; NYC recorded 0 murders over the last 9 days. Of course, as with hot dogs and pizzas, Chicago crime does not abide by New Yorker rules.

With temperatures not exceeding the mid 20s, our city saw 6 homicides on Saturday. As if that were not enough of an anomaly, one of the shootings involved a shotgun and a rifle, and another was classified as a double homicide (Chicago's second of the year). The use of weaponry was particularly unusual, given that Chicago's criminals overwhelmingly favor handguns to other firearms.

In a devastating and tragic turn, one of the victims was 33-year-old Ronnie Chambers, the last of 4 siblings to be killed by gun violence in this city. His mother, Shirley Chambers, has now lost all of her children to homicide: 18-year-old Carlos Chambers in 1995, 15-year-old LaToya Chambers in 2000, and 23-year-old Jerome Chambers also in 2000. The Chambers' family tragedy may have made the headlines today, but it is by no means unique to many households of Chicago.

Indeed, as you might imagine, everything else about these attacks was more predictable than an NRA gun rights speech. Boys are killed in the same neighborhoods today where their older brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, and friends died twenty years ago. The CPD has made no arrests. No witnesses have come forward. Onlookers accused the police of arriving too late, and police officers accused onlookers of not calling in the crimes. And perhaps the most notable, or rather grimly obvious, is that all of the victims were black males. Given Chicago crime patterns, they could easily have been any young (or older) male of color, whether black, brown, Hispanic, or any other non-white race.

In light of recent Congressional efforts towards stricter (or more lenient?) firearm regulation, I am compelled to share stories like these. They will make the Tribune front page for 12 to 24 hours before being relegated to the side column. And from there, they will disappear entirely by the next sports team victory or snow day record. For the average reader of this blog, an educated, socially aware, politically involved individual like myself and my friends, days like this cannot go forgotten.

The Chambers family is no more or less tragic than Sandy Hook, and to even think of it in those terms is barbaric. But they both represent different sides of America's gun violence, and we need to consider both of them in our personal and political dialogue. It is idealistic, or flat out ignorant, to think that a set of policies designed to stop (and treat) the Adam Lanzas and James Holmeses of our country will also stop and treat the murderers of Chicago. In this current policy window, perhaps it might be prudent to just tackle the issues that our leaders have the capital to make progress on (e.g. universal background checks). No matter what happens, let us not forget days like Saturday.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Chicago Maroon Op-ed -- "Safety: not first, but surprisingly close"

Inspired by my recent articles on this site about Hyde Park crime, I wrote this opinions piece for our school paper, The Chicago Maroon. It was published in the 1/11/2013 issue. I have reproduced it below:


Safety: not first, but surprisingly close

Commonly-held perceptions of crime in Hyde Park do not match the actual numbers.

From first-years to graduate students, there is a widely circulated myth that Hyde Park is an exceptionally unsafe neighborhood. We certainly see a lot of daily evidence as to this danger. Campus street corners seem to have more security and police patrol cars than most military installations. CTA bus drivers often remind students to keep their phones hidden while on the bus. A number of violent, high- profile robberies during the last year made it into both the Maroon and even Chicago Tribune pages. And let’s not forget Chicago’s nationally publicized 506 (or 513, depending on your source) murders in 2012, many of which occurred only a few miles from Cobb Hall. Between these constant reminders of imminent peril, it is no wonder that University members live with such crime anxiety. Fortunately, this fear is almost entirely unfounded.

As many students know, the University and Hyde Park are actually some of the safest places in all of Chicago, let alone on the South side. There are many factors contributing to this, including the exceptional officers of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), high property values, low poverty and demographic diversity. This reality is often obscured by the constant export of tragic, violent stories from surrounding communities, many of which do suffer from extreme crime rates. But according to Chicago Police Department (CPD), over the past five years, Hyde Park had one of the lowest occurrences of violent crime in any Chicago neighborhood.

As an example, consider 2008, the most recent year in which Chicago surpassed the grisly 500-homicide mark. Hyde Park had a violent crime rate of 558 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the citywide rate was more than twice as much, at 1,263 per 100,000 Chicagoans. Of course, then there were nearby communities, many of which experienced a different sort of violence entirely, one far more tenacious and constant than we are accustomed to in Hyde Park. Take for example Woodlawn (1,904), Washington Park (3,138), and Englewood (5,405)—just a snapshot of “the other Chicago” that lies beyond our borders.
Trends over time tell a more complete story than just yearly snapshots, and that is as true of crime data as any other field of social science. The UCPD reports that Hyde Park violent crime steadily declined for the past decade. But did this trend continue into 2012, a year that saw awful spikes in violence across the rest of Chicago? Were Hyde Park and the University affected?

To answer this question, I looked at UCPD and CPD crime logs from 2011 and 2012. Although the data sets have overlaps in reported crime, there are often big differences; incidents called in exclusively to the CPD do not show up in UCPD reports, for example. This meant it was possible that UCPD and CPD data showed different stories about what happened in these two years. Because violent crime is so uniquely harmful to victims and a community, I only looked at robbery, battery, assault, and murder. Property crimes, although damaging, just do not cause the same sort of profound trauma.

In the end, both sources were in agreement: Hyde Park has gotten a whole lot safer from 2011 to 2012. According to the UCPD, there was a 12 percent decrease in Hyde Park violence, from 103 incidents in 2011 to 91 in 2012. The CPD, with a more comprehensive set of reported crimes, reported 758 incidents in 2011 but only 537 in 2012, a whopping 29 percent decrease. Admittedly, some readers might be very alarmed by these raw numbers, totals that still seem high. To put them in context, consider the hyper-affluent Gold Coast on the city’s North Side, a neighborhood that is widely acknowledged to be the safest community in the city. In 2011, the Gold Coast recorded 502 violent incidents, with 404 in 2012. These numbers are right in the range of Hyde Park’s, proving not only how safe our South Side home is, but also that it remains one of the safest places in Chicago.

Despite these statistics, our University is still in an urban area. Crime still occurs, especially violent crime. As head instructor in the UChicago Self-Defense Club, I always remind my students to remain vigilant and aware, even though crime in our area is thankfully so low. For those who are the victims of crime, these probabilities and percentages are little consolation. But for most students, alumni, applicants, professors, and Hyde Park community members, the facts about local crime are very heartening. In light of these findings, let’s all make a collective resolution in this new year to stop preaching the myth of UChicago and Hyde Park crime and danger. Also, returning to those wise CTA drivers, let’s actually put those iPhones and handheld devices away when we are in transit, whether walking or bussing.

Sheridan Lardner, A.B. ‘11, is a graduate student in the School of Social Service Administration.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

UChicago Crime Report: CPD data confirms Hyde Park violent crime drop

I received a great comment from a reader the other day that encouraged me to write this post. In the comment, "siltsaltsand" explained that he used CPD data to come to a different set of conclusions about Hyde Park crime, showing that crime might actually be higher in 2012 than 2011. Because I know that UCPD statistics are often incomplete, it seemed very possible to me that the CPD data sources might show a different picture of things than those from UChicago.

To get a better sense of this picture, I used Chicago DataPortal numbers to look at violent crime incidents in the Hyde Park area. The data on that site are "extracted from the Chicago Police Department's CLEAR (Citizen Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting) system" (Source), and should reflect exactly what is reported to the CPD. For incidents, I looked at the following index crimes:
  • Robbery
  • Battery
  • Assault
  • Sexual Assault
  • Murder
For the area of my search, I specified the 3 beats (multi-block areas in the district designated as beats by the CPD) that best constituted "Hyde Park". The map below shows that 3 beats that I looked at.

(Map taken from ClearPath Chicago Police Department website)
You will notice that some beats were omitted from the analysis, most notably Beat 0222 (above E. Hyde Park Blvd) and 0223 (above E. Hyde Park and west of Cottage). These are beats that, although part of Kenwood and Hyde Park in a municipal sense, are home to very, very few students and University community members. They also include areas that are not historically part of the Hyde Park area, as it is understood by most residents and Chicagoans. Indeed, the inclusion of Beat 0223 might be a bit misleading, because it includes incidents that occurred on the border of Washington Park, an area that is not technically part of the neighborhood. Even so, students definitely use the park, and those incidents would be valuable information for us to know.

The included three beats, Beats 235, 234, and 233, represent the vast majority of Hyde Park residents and UChicago community members. The areas outside of these beats have much lower income and property values, and are really not part of the Hyde Park/University area persay. As the City of Chicago defines it, Hyde Park is really constituted by the boundaries of East Hyde Park Blvd. (North), 61st Street (South), Cottage Grove (West), and Lake Michigan (East). The beats above best represent that area, both from the municipal perspective and the community perspective.

Between January 1 and December 27, 2011, there were a total of 758 violent incidents in the Hyde Park area (Beats 235, 234, and 233). In 2012, however, there were only 537 such incidents recorded during that time period. This represents an impressive 29% decrease in area violent crime, far more than the 12% decrease suggested by the UCPD data.

The table below summarizes the totals by year for each index crime mentioned. All crimes occurred in the Hyde Park area (235, 234, and 233).

Crime # incidents
# incidents
Robbery 82 107+30%
Battery 521 294-44%
Assault 137 119-13%
Sexual Assault
11 11+0%
Homicide 7 3-57%
TOTALS 758 537-29%

Of all the entries in this table, the most interesting are Battery and Robbery. Battery incidents experienced a huge decrease from 2011 to 2012. On the other hand, there were also 25 additional robberies in 2012, another crime that has big implications for public safety.

Overall, however, the picture is extremely positive for both our neighborhood and our University. Violent crime continue to decrease in the area, including those crimes that are most likely to impact students. Although robberies increased, this was more than offset by the decrease in battery and assault. Additional patrolling, citizen vigilance, and police intelligence will likely make it possible to have yet another reduction at the end of 2013. Speaking specifically on robberies, my guess is that the increase in handheld device technology led to a similar increase in robberies (although I admittedly have no numerical evidence for that). That is to say, the problem is not that there are more robbers in the area, but rather that there is much more opportunity for robbery.

In my last post, I used UCPD data to show that UChicago experienced a 12% drop in violent crime. Here, we see that CPD data tells a similar, perhaps even more heartening, story about area violence. A 29% drop is huge, one that Superintendent McCarthy would move mountains to say is true of the entire city. In 2012 as in 2011, Hyde Park just remains a safe place to live and learn. 

As a final note, this inquiry also highlighted the glaring discrepancies between CPD and UCPD data. In robberies alone, the UCPD only recorded 71 and 50 robberies in 2011 and 2012 respectively. The CPD recorded 82 and 107. As the UCPD reminds us in its website, their data only reflects crimes reported directly to their offices, which might account for the differences. Even so, it is good to know for the future that the UCPD incident reports have some sizable reporting gaps that could definitely affect later analyses.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

UChicago Crime Report: Hyde Park violent crime down 12%

In this article, I discuss the drop in Hyde Park violent crime from 2011 to 2012. I will go over the types of crime, the number of attackers, the weapons used in those attacks, and a variety of other nuanced points bout local Hyde Park crime. Whether you are a student, a social worker, a martial artist, a concerned Chicagoan, or some combination of the above, there is something in here just for you.

It is no secret that Chicago had a bad year for violent crime. Murders increased, along with shootings and gang conflicts, and the national media never backed down in reporting these trends. The city is not off to a promising start in this new year, with at least 12 already shot or stabbed to death since midnight on January 1. Thankfully, as even a cursory statistical glance would show, most of the city was sheltered from this rise in violent crime. Communities like Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast, Wicker Park, and a variety of other neighborhoods where more privileged demographics congregate all experienced only minor crime fluctuations in 2012. One such neighborhood actually saw a fairly major decrease in violent crime in 2012, despite its proximity to some of the most dangerous communities in the city.

Between January 1 and December 31, Hyde Park enjoyed some very positive changes to its patterns of violent crime in previous years. Overall violent crime was down, as was firearm related crime and incidents. Although Hyde Park has historically, at least for the last decade, avoided those gang and gun related attacks that tend to characterize the rest of the South Side, our neighborhood has always had a robbery problem. A UCPD Officer I once spoke to unofficially confirmed that most robbers and attackers live outside the area, sometimes traveling many miles to arrive in our college-town neighborhood. Even so, the area still has about as many robberies per year as the Loop, a well-patrolled and peopled part of the city

It is a fairly common University myth that the neighborhood is dangerous, one that causes me no end of annoyance. If you want to see dangerous, travel southwest to 62nd and Champlain, just west of Cottage Grove. Not down to 63rd and Ellis (no more dangerous than 55th and Ellis) or north to Kenwood (I mean really, the PRESIDENT OF THE COUNTRY lives there). But Hyde Park itself? This is about as safe as urban neighborhoods get anywhere, let alone in Chicago. We have our small share of crime, but most of it is preventible through common sense, something that is sadly in short supply at our lofty University. The vast, vast majority of students get through their time at UChicago without witnessing a non-Socratic argument, let alone an attack.

These safety myths is equally annoying to the UCPD, which has done an excellent job of reducing area crime and preserving student safety in tandem with the University and its private, unarmed security guards posted on corners. Given the high ranking of our University and its attractiveness to prospective students, it is important that we as a community know exactly what our crime numbers are; it would be a shame to scare away students based off of tall-tales. The data shows that at least in 2012, the UCPD did a truly commendable job of preventing crimes and quickly apprehending suspects.

From 2011 to 2012, UChicago-area violent crime fell from 103 to 91 incidents. This drop was most pronounced in robberies; in 2011, the area had 71 robberies. In 2012, however, it had only 50, representing an impressive 30% drop. The number of armed robberies in which a firearm was used also decreased, from a 2011 total of 38 to a 2012 tally of 17.

It must be noted that "violent crime" includes crimes targeting both students and non-students, both on campus (in dorms, fraternities, nearby corners, etc.) and off campus (bus-stops not near UChicago, student apartment areas, etc.). As such, there is a wide range of perpetrators included in the data. Some perpetrators are students. Some are not. Because there is no consistent or reliable way to classify an attacker, I have not attempted to.

Batteries and strongarm robberies remained roughly constant between the two years. Snatch-and-run incidents, in which an attacker simply grabs an object and flees without altercation, increased slightly, from 13 to 21. Given the prevalence of handheld devices on campus, this is a pleasant surprise, as we might expect this number to increase much more dramatically than it did.

Overall, it was a good year for the UCPD, and a safer year for University students. Although there were some nasty, highly publicized incidents on campus (many of which I posted about), the holistic picture was a good one for our school. The table below summarizes the most interesting results of the 2011-2012 comparison.
(NOTE: All data was taken from individual UCPD Daily Incident Reports in all months of 2011 and 2012. Crimes were classified based on UCPD identification. "Violent crimes" include battery, assault, and robbery. Data excludes crimes that were just reported to the CPD and not to the UCPD; notably absent is a shooting that occurred near Lake Shore Drive over the summer. The dataset is still quite comprehensive and withstands scrutiny when compared to CPD data)

Crime 2011 2012 % Change
Total violent crime 103 91 -12%
Robbery with a handgun 38 17 -55%
Strongarm Robbery 42 47 +12%
Snatch and run
("Theft from Person")
13 21 +61%
Battery 14 11 -21%

I am hesitant to include some of the percent changes because they can appear more spectacular than the absolute differences between totals. For example, a 61% increase in thefts from person seems big, but it only accounted for 8 incidents all year. You will notice that the data above does not quite add up; both the 2012 and 2011 columns have a few crimes unaccounted for. These were extremely isolated incidents (e.g. sexual assaults) that represent no crime pattern worth mentioning. Moreover, out of respect for the victims of such isolated incidents, there is no need to call undue attention to them here.

In the table below, I separate crimes by month. This gives some sense of the "worst/dangerous" months in Hyde Park, as well as some sense of how the UCPD might be responding to those historical trends.

Month # 2011
violent crimes
# 2012
violent crimes
January 11 5
February 9 5
March 7 7
April 6 5
May 9 10
June 6 8
July 15 8
August 8 5
September 6 5
October 8 14
November 10 14
December 8 5

Up until October 2012, yearly violent crime totals were better in literally every single month (although tied in March). I am hesitant to read too much into totals that are so low, but the reduction in January and July crimes from 11 to 5 and 15 to 8 respectively seem like some positive changes. But then comes October and November, where all of the UCPD patrols and security guards on corners don't seem to do much to stop violent incidents. Indeed, I imagine those totals would have been even worse had those officers not been in the picture at all.

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion to draw from this is that with only 3 exceptions, attacks occurred in roughly equal proportion throughout the year. May, October, and November were the worst months, but not by much. This gets at the point that students need to be aware and vigilant at all times, not just when it is warm outside. 

As a martial artist, one of the most important questions I ask about these crimes is "How did they happen?" Were there multiple attackers or a single attacker? What weapons were involved? Were multiple attackers more likely to be armed than solo ones? What times of day did these attacks occur? Although the UCPD does not release official statistics on this, the "Description" of each incident often provides all of the details we might wish to know.

The tables below summarizes the most interesting findings from the 2011 and 2012 crime data. Numbers will not add up to the respective totals (103 and 91) because I am only highlighting those findings that are most relevant to martial artists and concerned citizens (the latter category should include every reader of this blog and, hopefully but not realistically, every UChicago community member). Also in some cases, UCPD descriptions could not be used to determine the numbers, in which case the entire data point was omitted.

# of attackers 2011 2012
One 59 52
Two 27 26
Three 12 8
Four 2 3
Five 1 2
Six or more 2 0

This data is alarming from a martial perspective. In both 2011 and 2012, 40% of total attacks (103 and 91 respectively) involved multiple attackers. As anyone with training and experience can tell you, a multiple attacker scenario is much more dangerous and difficult than one with only one aggressor. The fact that the percentages were consistent from year to year suggests that the 40/60 split between multiple/single attackers might just be a general truth of Hyde Park robbery, but further data analysis would be needed to confirm that.

The following table shows the method of operation/weapon used by solo attackers in 2011 and 2012. It will be followed by a table showing the same information in multiple attacker incidents.

Single Attacker M.O. 2011 2012
(All handguns)
12 4
(Pushing, shoving,
16 21
10 6
(Grabbing an object
and fleeing)
13 16
Knife or edged implement 1 1
(Includes bricks, spitting,
bottles, etc.)
7 2
Total Unarmed 39 43
Total Armed 13 5

In single attacker incidents, especially in 2012, you were much more likely to encounter an unarmed attacker. Although those tallies at the end exclude the "Other" category, the overwhelming number of incidents would still be classified as "Unarmed", even if all of the "Others" represented armed attacks. Unarmed attacks are an entirely different beast than armed ones, using an entirely different skillset. For example, although I often disparage pure groundfighting and wrestling skills in self-defense situations, they would be highly appropriate for dealing with single, unarmed attackers.

Now let's look at situations involving multiple attackers.

Multiple Attacker M.O. 2011 2012
(All handguns)
25 13
(Pushing, shoving,
8 18
6 2
(Grabbing an object
and fleeing)
0 0
Knife or edged implement 0 0
(Includes bricks, spitting,
bottles, etc.)
1 0
Total Unarmed 14 20
Total Armed 25 13

This is where it gets particularly dangerous for martial artists (and non-martial artists) who want to defend themselves when attacked. In 2012, 40% of multiple attacker incidents involved a weapon. In 2011, that number was much higher, at 64%. Once weapons get involved, especially with multiple opponents, a whole range of techniques and responses become instantly inoperable. You don't want to go to the ground. You can't overcommit to a disarm. If you are in a group of people, the safety of your friends becomes even more pressing. This has huge implications for training and practice, although those conclusions are probably best discussed in a post more dedicated to martial concerns.

The final piece of the crime equation I want to discuss is time. I am always shocked that police, criminologists, reporters, and other researchers always overlook the time of crime commission. The data is there, but no conclusions are ever drawn from it. At least with UChicago, it's time to change that.

The table below breaks down the day into time increments (midnight to 1:00 AM, 1:00 AM to 2:00 AM, etc.), recording the number of crimes that occurred during those time slots. To ensure that the dataset is large enough to warrant analysis, I do not discriminate between months when recording crimes. Although it is possible that July crimes are more likely to occur after 7'o clock than are February crimes, we just don't have enough data points to draw those conclusions. Finally, I acknowledge that there is something artificial about time brackets; there is no material difference between a crime that occurs at 8:58 PM and one that occurs at 9:01 PM. Despite this occasional oddity, we should still be able to see some interesting patterns emerge from the data.

Time slot 2011 2012
12:00 AM - 1:00 AM 6 5
1:00 AM - 2:00 AM 4 5
2:00 AM - 3:00 AM 4 4
3:00 AM - 4:00 AM 4 2
4:00 AM - 5:00 AM 0 2
5:00 AM - 6:00 AM 3 1
6:00 AM - 7:00 AM 0 0
7:00 AM - 8:00 AM 0 1
8:00 AM - 9:00 AM 1 1
9:00 AM - 10:00 AM 0 0
10:00 AM - 11:00 AM 1 5
11:00 AM - 12:00 PM 4 3
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM 3 6
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM 5 5
2:00 PM - 3:00 PM 4 3
3:00 PM - 4:00 PM 4 7
4:00 PM - 5:00 PM 2 5
5:00 PM - 6:00 PM 4 5
6:00 PM - 7:00 PM 8 7
7:00 PM - 8:00 PM 8 5
8:00 PM - 9:00 PM 13 6
9:00 PM - 10:00 PM 7 8
10:00 PM - 11:00 PM 11 3
11:00 PM - 12:00 AM 7 2
(Times reflect when the incident OCCURRED, not when it was reported)

2011 had a pretty clear pattern, highlighted with the red lettering. Roughly 50% of all crime occurred between the hours of 6:00 PM and midnight, with the worst hours being 6:00 - 9:00 PM. The 2012 distribution, however, was a lot wider. Crime seems pretty consistent from basically noon until 10:00 PM, a huge range that doesn't really say much except that "crime happens". The most interesting observation is around the 10:00 PM - 12:00 AM time slots in 2012. Owing to some combination of factors, likely including heightened police presence, 2012 saw a huge drop in crime during those hours. The same can be said of the earlier time slots, notably 8:00 PM - 9:00 PM.

Most criminologists are extremely hesitant to accredit a drop in crime to increased policing. After all, there are just so many factors at work, and the police often have a lot less impact than we might believe.

But in the case of 2012 UChicago crime, my suspicion is that UCPD and University security policies were integral in the crime drop. As far as I can tell, those were the only big differences between this year and last year in Hyde Park and the South Side. Indeed, given the spike in citywide crime this year, we would expect Hyde Park to maybe follow suit. Its apparent resistance to the crime increase suggests that other factors are at work in shielding this neighborhood.

One thing that is definitely not responsible for the drop in crime? Uchis (pronounced "You-Shes", if you recall). UChicago students remain some of the most oblivious and unaware people in the entire state, rivaling even fanny pack toting tourists on the Magnificent Mile. Between iPhones and iPads and all their variations, UChicago must have more handheld technology that most Apple warehouses. Owing to the practice of stooping one's head to bury themselves in their device, I am more accustomed to seeing the top of people's heads than their faces, so much so that I recognize some students purely by the part in their hair.

For their part, the UCPD and private security contractors on campus do everything they can to safeguard the community and its comically oblivious members. As patrols increase and the University continues to put resources into security, I imagine we will see a continuance of the 2011-2012 crime trend.

There is a good chance that crime will continue to fall in Hyde Park, which is good for both the University and all of its students and alumni who a) want to visit and b) want to see their expensive degrees increase in value and prestige. It is also good for the neighborhood, one that has remained resilient to surrounding violence and criminal activity, and one that looks to continue its resilience into the coming years.

On this end, I will continue to provide commentary and reports on local crime. If even one UChicago student remembers to put down their phone and identify a potential robbery before s/he strikes, my writings will have been a success.

For those who are lacking in New Years Resolutions, or those who have already lapsed, you can add "vigilance", "awareness", and "street sensibility" to your list of positive behaviors for 2013. In doing so, you will not only help yourself, but you will help UChicago continue its positive crime trends into this next year and beyond.

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.