Chicago sees drop in homicides in 2017, but violence still 'intolerably high'

Police said the drop is in part due to an expansion of technology that pinpoints where shots were fired and quickly dispatch officers to the scene

By Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — After the deadliest year in two decades, the first half of 2017 seemed just as grim in Chicago as homicides remained devastatingly high, raising fears that the “spike” in violence had become a new normal for the city.

Then in the second half of the year, homicides plummeted, particularly in two of the city’s most violence-plagued neighborhoods, contributing to about a 15 percent overall drop in killings over last year.

In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, police lift crime scene tape after two people were shot and transported to Stroger Hospital in Chicago.
In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, police lift crime scene tape after two people were shot and transported to Stroger Hospital in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, File)

That decrease has raised new hopes that Chicago could make progress in shedding its national reputation for gun violence, an image fueled by both President Donald Trump’s frequent mentions and by the distressing loss on Chicago’s streets.

Why the second-half decrease?

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson cited new technology and tactics in those crime-plagued neighborhoods, and suggested that police relations with the community were improving. Anti-police sentiments were inflamed in 2016 after the release of a video showing a white police officer fatally shoot black teenager Laquan McDonald, and some accused police of going “fetal.”

Johnson, however, has said he believed the video and its publicity emboldened criminals to break the law, a brazenness he now believes may have waned.

“I think that they used that to their advantage because if you think they don’t pay attention to that type of thing, you’re fooling yourself because they do,” he said. “I think the boldness of them is starting to tick down a bit, but it’s still there.”

If officers were truly going “fetal” in 2016, there’s no statistical indication that the police pullback has changed this year. Two key measures of police aggressiveness — arrests and street stops — are around the same level this year as last, and yet homicides dropped. The Police Department notes, however, that while overall arrests are flat, arrests for gun crimes have increased 28 percent.

Experts and some neighborhood activists warn, however, that tallies in 2017 aren’t reason to cheer just yet. Though violence has dropped in recent months, Chicago will still end 2017 with historically high totals. Indeed, if last year was excluded, this year’s homicide toll would be the highest in Chicago since 2002.

In 2016, Chicago logged more than 700 homicides and over 4,000 shooting victims. This year’s totals will be below both of those tallies. Through Tuesday, 644 people were slain in Chicago, compared with 754 during the same period last year, a drop of about 15 percent, according to Chicago police statistics. That represents the largest single-year drop in homicides since 2004.

The Police Department statistics do not include about 20 slayings on area expressways, police-involved shootings or other homicides in which a person was killed in self-defense or their deaths were still being investigated.

The number of people wounded and killed by gunfire dropped by about 18 percent to 3,543 from 4,327, according to the Chicago Tribune’s statistics through Wednesday. That’s still a rate of about 10 shootings a day.

Johnson said he’s looking at the decrease as one small step toward a safer city.

“The way violence goes … the reductions have to be incremental,” Johnson said. “But the fact that we’ve got it over 100 (homicides) in terms of reduction is really room for encouragement and positive thinking going into 2018.”

Crime experts were not surprised by the drop in violence this year, saying 2016 may have been an anomaly.

“It’s good news,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “Although the numbers still remain, I would say, intolerably high.”

Others are even less enthusiastic about the drop. The Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side pastor, pointed to a decline in the city’s African-American population, including the Austin community where his church is located, as a sign of how many people are fed up with the city’s violence. He pointed to losses in some South and West Side neighborhoods, where crime is still rampant, job opportunities are scarce and schools have closed.

Public safety issues and economic desperation are two of the main reasons African-Americans have moved out of communities like Austin and, in some cases, Chicago altogether, he said.

“The bottom line is if you can manage to dodge bullets, you’ve still got to eat, you’ve still got to have a way to feed your family and put a roof over your head,” said Acree, pastor of the Greater St. John Bible Church. “Not only can the parents not eat properly or sustain themselves in a decent manner, but the future for the children is so bleak and dark because whenever you close schools, you’re obliterating the potential and the future of a generation.”

Acree also said that despite the reduction in homicides, the sheer number of people killed in Chicago in 2017 “is still a travesty.”

“People are running out of the city like wildfire, and we’re celebrating that we don’t have 700 people who got killed, we’ve got 600,” he said. “Give me a break.”

Behind every data point in this year’s homicide and shooting tallies are thousands of stories of loss and heartache, of gang warfare and random violence, of so-called intended targets and those felled in their wake.

In a reminder that no one is exempt from Chicago’s violence, Cook County Judge Raymond Myles, who regularly presided over violence court, was shot and killed in a robbery outside his home in April in the South Side’s West Chesterfield neighborhood.

In October, beloved teacher Cynthia Trevillion was gunned down in Rogers Park on the Far North Side while walking to a Red Line station.

But perhaps the most jarring spate of violence occurred in February when three children — 12-year-old Kanari Gentry-Bowers, 11-year-old Takiya Holmes and 2-year-old Lavontay White Jr. — died within days of each other after being shot on the South and West sides.

Then there were homicides that garnered little attention, such as the still-unsolved killing of Antwon Green, 15, near his grandmother’s home in the Lawndale neighborhood on Labor Day.

Antwon’s mother, Genneva Green, recalled in a recent interview that she had warned her son to stay close to his grandmother’s home while she went to buy her other children school supplies. Her block seemed peaceful, she recalled.

“The birds are chirping. You can hear the dogs barking. And we didn’t think nothing of it,” she said.

While waiting in line at a Dollar Tree store in near west suburban Cicero, a call alerted her to the news that her son Antwon had been shot in the back.

Police said the teen was arguing with a group of people when one of them pulled out a gun and shot him. His mother disputes that account, saying Antwon wasn’t arguing with anyone and believes he wasn’t the intended target. Her son died that evening, the day before he was to start his sophomore year at Corliss High School on the Far South Side.

Green wonders why no one was able to guide her son’s killer away from violence.

“Where is the mother? The father? Auntie? The grandma? Where is somebody?” she asked. “Just somebody. Anybody.”

Behind the statistics too are stories of police and citizens’ efforts to reclaim Chicago’s streets from violent criminals. Two of Chicago’s 22 patrol districts are responsible for the majority of this year’s drop in homicides, and both were the targets of special police initiatives.

The Englewood District, covering the Englewood and West Englewood neighborhoods on the South Side, had 48 homicides through Dec. 24 compared with 86 during the year-earlier period. In the Harrison District, which covers Lawndale, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, killings dropped to 68 from 93.

Among the city’s most violent districts, they are regularly the focus of elite citywide units that conduct sensitive investigations related to gang conflicts, narcotics sales and gun trafficking. FBI agents and other federal law enforcement personnel also work on long-term cases there.

Johnson credited the use of new crime-fighting technology and efforts to improve the Police Department’s often-tense relationship with the African-American community for the reduced violence.

“If we can make headway in gangs in districts like Englewood or Harrison on the West Side, then that’s room for encouragement citywide,” Johnson said. “And we’ve never been able to wrap our arms around either one of those districts.”

Englewood and Harrison were the first districts in 2017 to use technology designed to help officers better predict where shootings may occur and respond more quickly to gunfire.

District supervisors analyze shooting data in real time through a computer program called HunchLab to quickly determine where best to deploy their beat patrol and tactical officers. This is integrated with gunshot detection technology called ShotSpotter, which tells officers in the field on their work-issued smartphones where the gunfire is coming from.

The technology is showcased at Strategic Decision Support Centers, where district personnel analyze data projected on large TV screens that display crime maps and surveillance video footage from police cameras in neighborhoods.

In the six districts using this technology — the others being Gresham and Deering on the South Side and Ogden and Austin on the West Side — homicides and shootings dropped by about a quarter over last year, according to police statistics through Dec. 24. The 16 other districts, which did not use it in 2017, saw a combined drop of only 5 percent in homicides and 15 percent in shootings.

By the end of 2018, the department plans to expand the technology to six more districts: Wentworth, Grand Crossing, South Chicago, Calumet, Chicago Lawn and Grand Central.

“Instead of being reactive to that first shooting and focusing on preventing retaliatory shootings,” Johnson said, “we actually have been able to stop the first shooting. So that’s huge.”

Police and city officials have struggled over the years with finding successful strategies to address the drug problem and how it contributes to violent crime.

Chicago police worked this year with heroin addicts and other drug users in the Harrison District to put them through a diversion program geared toward treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The department has also continued its work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to address the violence that has resulted from the drug sales.

In March, the two agencies shared their efforts with reporters after investigating a Traveling Vice Lords faction known as the Cali Boys, whose gang members were allegedly using drug money to buy illegal guns to protect their drug business. At that point, the operation, which began in 2015, had nettled about three dozen arrests and was still ongoing.

To illustrate the relationship between violence and drug dealing in Chicago, authorities at the news conference displayed a couple of maps of the city from the past year: one of them showing red dots where all the shootings occurred and another showing blue dots for 911 calls of drug overdoses. Harrison was littered with blue and red dots either next to or on top of one another.

“When (gang members are) doing the shootings, when they’re doing the killings to support this drug trade, it puts them on our radar,” Anthony Riccio, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Organized Crime, said at the time.

Johnson believes Chicago’s violence worsened in part because of the police killing of Laquan McDonald and other controversial incidents across the country that created what he called “an anti-police narrative.”

Rosenfeld, the criminologist, believes recent spikes in violence and other crime could be the result of a deeper distrust between police and minority communities.

“There’s a reservoir of discontent in those communities about the police, both that they overpolice the areas in some ways, and also that the police are not around or available when they are needed,” Rosenfeld said. “And when those tensions get aggravated, what tends to happen is people lose even more confidence in the police and some people begin to take matters into their own hands, and peremptory killings and shootings, and retaliatory shootings, tend to go up.”

Some observers believe that greater scrutiny of the police — combined with an increased availability of dashcam and bodycam video — has led officers to go “fetal,” as Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously put it.

Arrests dropped significantly from 2015 to 2016, as did street stops, after officers were required to more thoroughly document who they stopped and why. Some people suggested, however, that the numbers proved a demoralized police force was easing up on crime. But this year’s flat tally for arrests — while violence decreased — upends that theory. Through Dec. 24, arrests dropped by 2 percent to 81,861 compared to 83,849 during the same period last year, police statistics show. There were 107,598 street stops, just 538 more than last year.

The so-called police “aggressiveness” of the past isn’t necessarily a tactic residents should want police to return to, some warn. Johnson has said officers will never stop people on the street at the levels they once did because many stops prior to 2016 were unconstitutional.

“We have to be careful with that because just because someone looks like a gangbanger doesn’t mean he is one,” Johnson said during the recent interview.

Johnson said the 28 percent rise in gun arrests — from 3,337 to 4,273 through Dec. 24 — shows his officers are being more strategic about who they go after on the street.

“Arresting a bad guy with a gun is the toughest thing, most dangerous thing police do,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that there are more guns out there than there were before. I think we’re just catching more of them with guns.”

Some crime experts think that one of two things could be leading to the increase in gun arrests in Chicago: Either the Police Department’s efforts to target gun offenders have been effective or more criminals are out on the streets carrying illegal guns.

Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, believes the latter should not be discounted “given the large numbers of shootings in the past two years.”

Johnson successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to get tougher on gun criminals.

In January, legislation will go into effect changing gun sentencing laws, increasing the range judges can hand out. Instead of three to 14 years in prison for some repeat gun crimes, judges can sentence offenders to seven to 14 years. If they want to depart from that guideline, judges will have to explain why.

Even with the late-year drop, Chicago’s homicide total remains the highest of any U.S. city, with more killings than New York and Los Angeles combined. In New York, a city with more than three times the population of Chicago, 278 people were slain through Dec. 17. Los Angeles listed 271 homicides through Dec. 16.

Chicago is not the nation’s leader in homicides per capita, however. Smaller cities, including Baltimore and New Orleans, have higher homicide rates, according to statistics from mid-December.

But Chicago still has a ways to go to shake off its national image as a city plagued by violence and has long strides to make to give residents of its most crime-plagued neighborhoods a sense of safety.

Because of the shootings in her East Garfield Park neighborhood, Latasha Green, aunt of 15-year-old slaying victim Antwon Green, doesn’t let her three children — ranging in ages from 9 to 14 — walk to a corner store or to school or hang around outdoors without being there with them.

But this past summer, she said she saw a welcoming sight: police officers patrolling the neighborhood on bicycles, often six at a time, along Madison Street.

“I’ve seen more police officers out here,” Green, 35, said in her living room, standing near her Christmas tree. “They do good over here on this side, honestly.”

©2017 Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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