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One city, one homicide rate

Chicago Police investigate shooting Davis Square Park October 2012. |  Sun-Times Library

Chicago Police investigate a shooting at Davis Square Park in October 2012. | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: January 6, 2014 12:56PM

Thirty people were murdered in Chicago in November, adding to Chicago’s regrettable reputation as a violent town.

On his TV show one night last month, comedian Jon Stewart, in a funny rant defending New York pizza against Chicago deep dish pizza, made just that point, saying “we already gave you guys murder capital of the world.”

So we tread lightly in pointing out that there is good news hidden in the latest Chicago homicide numbers, reflecting in part the effectiveness of aggressive police strategies, even as homicide rates remain disturbingly high in specific neighborhoods. Citywide, both the number and per-capita rate of homicides were down 20 percent in November compared to the same month last year, continuing a remarkable 20 percent decline for 2013, with just one month to go.

At the same time, homicides remained at 20-year highs in certain South and West Side neighborhoods, such as South Shore and Chatham, no doubt adding fuel to a decade-long trend of middle class residents picking up and moving to the suburbs. Increasingly left behind are the poorest of Chicago’s poor, further concentrating the social woes that drive off businesses and jobs, overtax schools and social service agencies, give gangs room to grow and — coming full circle — result in more violent crime.

Chicago is witnessing the effectiveness of good police work, but also seeing its limits in the face of entrenched social problems and shifting demographics.

“Yes, the great Crime Decline is a fickle thing,” writes Daniel Hertz, a University of Chicago grad student and blogger, referring to his analysis of crime data prior to 2012, in which he revealed the growing disparity in murder rates among Chicago neighborhoods. “The North Side saw huge decreases … pretty much everywhere…. The parts of the South and West Sides closest to downtown — Bronzeville, the West Loop, Pilsen, etc. — got a lot safer. But most of the rest actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city, like Englewood and Garfield Park.”

Looking at the big picture, the lesson of the latest citywide homicide numbers is clear: Stay the course. McCarthy deserves much credit for innovative and effective policing approaches. Of particular note is his “wraparound strategy,” begun last year, in which the police conduct undercover drug stings to remove dealers from a targeted block and then keep them away by maintaining a regular presence, such as a squad car on the street, for months. And, making excellent use of social science research that shows a tight web of connections among violent criminals, the police make “custom notifications” to people identified as likely to become shooters or victims. An officer knocks on the door and tells the identified person that he is being watched.

Stepping up a third tried-and-true tactic — simply flooding a hot zone with officers at the first small flare up of violence — might be the most effective way to bring down homicide rates in those neighborhoods not benefiting from the city’s otherwise positive crime rate trend. Flooding hot zones is a labor-intensive approach to police work that calls for hiring more officers, which City Hall has no plans to do. Instead, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has set aside $75 million in police overtime in the city’s 2014 budget to mask the manpower shortage.

Truth is, Chicago deep dish pizza can hold its own against a New York slice, as even Jon Stewart now agrees, and much of Chicago boasts a murder rate no worse or even lower than in other big cities. But rich and poor, North Side and South Side, Chicago is a single city of interdependent neighborhoods. The well-being of one neighborhood relies on the others. And every Chicagoan has a right to feel safe and protected.

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