Vincent Rogers closed out Chicago’s annual homicide ledger on New Year’s Eve when the 26-year-old was gunned down in front of a South Side convenience store. His shooting marked the 415th killing in the nation’s third-largest city, as well as the end of a year that saw police make progress in the fight against gun violence.
Chicago cut its homicide total by 18 percent in 2013 after a year of high-profile mayhem that drew national attention. The killings were the fewest this city of 2.7 million people has reported since 1965, giving Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy confidence that they have found the strategy to make the streets safer.
“We’re just going to keep getting better at it,” McCarthy said in an interview yesterday.
Yet even as new police tactics targeting the most crime-prone neighborhoods reversed the numbers of a year earlier, Chicago outpaced its large urban peers in the amount of deadly violence. New York, with a population of 8.3 million, reported 333 homicides, a drop of 20 percent from 2012 and the fewest since record keeping began. And Los Angeles, with 3.8 million residents, had 250, down 16 percent through Dec. 28.
“We get measured almost exclusively by the murder rate, which in reality is one of the more difficult crimes to reduce,” McCarthy said. The amount of all categories of crime, from theft to murder, was down 16 percent. The number of shooting victims fell 24 percent last year to 2,328.
The public focus on homicides has been a constant in U.S. cities for generations, a powerful measure of a community’s quality of life. In Chicago, the violence numbers illustrate both the progress the city has made as well as the obstacles it faces to reduce them further.
During the 1990s the city recorded three years with more than 900 homicides. That decade’s annual average of about 820 killings gave way to a sharp reduction in the past decade, with about 530 killings a year, mirroring percentage reductions in many U.S. urban centers.
New York had 2,245 homicides in 1990 and has dramatically cut the toll -- by about 85 percent -- in the past 23 years. Chicago hasn’t recorded similar reductions, nor has it had fewer than 400 homicides in one year since 1965. Even with last year’s lower numbers, the city still averaged about six shootings a day, according to department records.
The majority of killings in Chicago occur on the city’s South and West sides, where most of the city’s black population lives with higher levels of poverty. Rogers was killed Dec. 31 in the Englewood neighborhood, long one of the most violent areas of the city.
“It’s gangs and guns,” said Robert Lombardo, a professor of criminology at Loyola University Chicago who served 30 years on the Chicago police force before beginning his academic career. “New York never had the gang problem that Chicago has.”
McCarthy said the combination of “generational gangs” and the proliferation of illegal guns distinguish the city from New York. Emanuel and McCarthy have been pushing the Illinois legislature to approve a bill enacting mandatory sentences for people convicted of illegally carrying a gun. The Chicago Police Department said Dec. 9 it had seized more than 6,500 illegal firearms in 2013.
A report released last month by Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies showed non-gang related homicides in Chicago declined from 1995 to 2010 while gang killings remained stable.
“Homicides are more likely to involve a gang member than not,” said the report’s author, Andrew Papachristos.
Last year was barely a month old when a 15-year-old girl who had performed at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural was killed in a gang retaliation shooting on the city’s South Side, as she was standing with classmates about a mile from Obama’s home.
The murder of Hadiya Pendleton, who police said had no gang ties, led to beefed up patrolling in high-crime areas. McCarthy moved 200 officers from desk duty to the streets, and the city spent almost $100 million on overtime to staff the effort. The new budget that went into effect Jan. 1 provides $75 million for law enforcement overtime.
Sustaining the strategy with heavy use of overtime poses challenges to a city with an annual pension obligation scheduled to jump to $1.2 billion in 2015. That is up from $467 million this year, unless state lawmakers approve cost-cutting pension changes.
McCarthy said the city’s financial stress isn’t a major hindrance to his department, though some high-ranking officers have “pension-itis” and are retiring early rather than risk potential cuts in their retirement income.
Lombardo said the city needs a bigger police force and questioned the long-term effects of relying on overtime. He warned of eventual burnout of officers from long hours of duty. McCarthy disagreed.
“We’ve got more officers per capita than any large city in the country,” McCarthy said, adding that Chicago ranks fourth among all cities, behind Washington, Baltimore and Newark, New Jersey, where he formerly was the chief of police.
“At some point size matters -- no two ways about it,” he said. “But it’s more important what those officers are doing than how many you have.”
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