Chicago's homicides are lower than they used to be, but still higher than New York's.

If Chicago Bleeds, It Leads

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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As I believe I've mentioned, I'm at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago for a few months, running a seminar on why legislation so rarely looks like what voters expected after hearing about it on the campaign trail. Naturally, my interest has been piqued in Chicagoland news. Like this weekend's shooting spree. Which made me recall what I'd been reading about a homicide spike in Chicago.

Why would that be, I wondered. Crime is falling in much of the country, so why is Chicago different?

It turns out it's not that different, or at least, not different in the way I thought. Crime overall is down in Chicago. Although homicides spiked in 2012, they seem to have abated since then, and are now lower than they have been since crime began soaring in the late 1960s. Some plausible allegations suggest that the Chicago Police Department is massaging the statistics to get lower numbers, but even if true, that doesn't seem likely to account for the entire drop.

Rather, I was a victim of my own expectations. Chicago's homicide rate is lower than it used to be, but it is still higher than New York -- 415 murders last year, compared with 332 in New York City, which has three times Chicago's population.

Chicago's homicide rate is great compared with that of the New York City I grew up in, or the Chicago of that era. In fact, adjusted for population, it's roughly comparable to that of the District of Columbia, where I live now.

Since Chicago is one of the nation's most populous cities, while the District ranks somewhere between Denver and Boston, Chicago produces eye-popping absolute numbers of homicides, as well as a higher rate per 100,000 inhabitants. So the national media is much less likely to notice a bad weekend in Washington.

That still leaves the question of why the rates are different, even if they're not rising. The best answer I can find is "nobody knows," though one expert did point out that Rust Belt cities tend to have high homicide rates. But it's a useful reminder that even as we talk about crime rates falling nationally, ultimately each crime is a local story.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net