There was a time when it looked as if Chicago would follow New York and Los Angeles into a kind of sustained peace. Then progress stalled in 2004, and the city has been through some harrowing years leading up to another alarming spike in homicides this year.
Already embroiled in a crisis over race and police conduct, Chicago now faces a 62 percent increase in homicides. Through mid-May, 216 people have been killed. Shootings also are up 60 percent.
So what’s going on in Chicago?
It’s complicated, but a comparison with New York is a good place to start. Both cities began the 1990s with historically high homicide rates; both have diverse populations, including large numbers of blacks, Hispanics and whites, and a wide range of economic fortune as well.
Chicago has about the same population as Brooklyn, but a year’s worth of homicides in the two places shows an astonishing difference in the toll.
Guns Are a Key Difference
People who know both cities say there are some significant differences in policing, especially around the issue of guns.
The homicide rate in Chicago is just a little higher than in New York when guns aren’t involved. But when it comes to shootings, both fatal and not, Chicago stands out, suggesting a level of armed interaction that isn’t happening in New York.
Chicago has a reputation for strict gun laws, and gun rights advocates often point to it as proof that gun regulation doesn’t reduce violence. But its laws aren’t what they used to be: Federal courts struck down its ban on handgun ownership in 2010, and its ban on gun sales in 2014. And a New York Times analysis showed guns were easily available from nearby jurisdictions, especially Indiana.
And Chicago is more lenient about illegal handguns than New York, prescribing a one-year minimum for possession versus three and a half years in New York. An attempt to match the New York law in 2013 was rejected by the Illinois legislature out of concern for skyrocketing incarceration rates for young black men.
New York also hired a lot more police officers in response to the crime of the 1990s, and, during its stop-and-frisk era of the 2000s, steeply increased gun enforcement. Recent studies, including one that looked at increased police presence in London after a terrorist attack, have suggested more police might mean less crime, said Jens Ludwig, the director of Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, which studies crime in both Chicago and New York.
Chicago’s Police Department, overwhelmed, can respond only to the most serious problems, leaving citizens to feel responsible for their own security, he said.
“Everyone has to establish deterrence on a retail basis,” he said. “People carry guns in public because other people are carrying guns. It’s literally an arms race, a vicious cycle. There are lots of indications that New York City, by taking guns more seriously and hiring more officers, has gotten a lot of guns off the streets, creating a virtuous cycle.”
Gang Wars in Chicago
Drive Much of Its Violence
In Chicago, gang disputes are clearly a big part of homicides, said John Hagedorn, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies Chicago gangs. “But these are not the same kind of disputes as before – they’re more localized disputes.”
Many of Chicago’s gangs have fractured, leading to more violence, said Arthur Lurigio, a criminology professor at Loyola University Chicago. While Latino gangs have remained more hierarchical, black gangs have splintered into small, disparate factions, whose disputes are less over territory and profits, and more over personal insults or shames, often fueled by social media, he said.
“Young people are making a lot of indirect threats toward cliques and rival gangs that are being interpreted as being threatening,” said Desmond Patton, a professor at Columbia University who has studied violence on social media. “Tagging is the conversation starter that could lead to someone getting a gun.”
In addition to making threats, individuals at times post their location on social media to prove to rivals that they’re tough, he said.
In one well-known instance, Gakirah Barnes, a Chicago gang member who was rumored to have killed or shot up to 20 rival gang members, referenced an address she frequented on Twitter. In the tweet, provided by Dr. Patton, Ms. Barnes says “Lz,” which has multiple meanings in Chicago gang cultures, including living life, at address number 6347. Later that day, she was shot and killed near the address.
Although there were differences in the way the polls were conducted, blacks and Hispanics in Chicago expressed significantly less hope than their counterparts in New York that their children would escape gang life.
Dr. Hagedorn also points out that though the city also has a lot of Latino gang members, Chicago’s violence is much higher among African-Americans. Three quarters of all homicide offenders and victims are black, he said.
“The shootings today are more spontaneous over day-to-day humiliations of youthful African-Americans,” he said.
Crime Persists in
Whether exacerbated by gangs or guns, though, Chicago’s killings are happening on familiar turf: Its poor, extremely segregated neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. And many say that is Chicago’s real violence issue.
“Where do gangs come from? They tend to take root in the very same neighborhoods that drive these other problems,” said Robert J. Sampson, a professor at Harvard and the author of “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.” “You can’t divorce the gang problem from the problem of deep concentrations of poverty.”
“What predicts violent crime rates is concentrated poverty and neighborhood disadvantage, and what determines concentrated poverty is high levels of black segregation combined with high levels of black poverty,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University.
In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation. While many areas have few or no killings, the South and West Sides are on par with the world’s most dangerous countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, and have been for many years.
The linkage of segregation, poverty and crime exists in New York City as well. Homicides occur at higher rates in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem, and many other neighborhoods are virtually free of killings.
But segregation in New York is nothing like in Chicago: The perfectly isolated neighborhood – where every man, woman and child is the same race – is rare in New York. Less than one percent of the population lives in such areas, and most of them are white. In Chicago, 12 percent of the black population is in a census block group that is 100 percent black.
Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”
“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”