By mid-summer of 2012, Chicagoans got the uneasy feeling that something bad was happening when it came to some key crime stats. It seemed that every weekend brought another upward tick in homicides and, as the year progressed, the media asked whether the individual incidents were painting a picture of a trend going in the wrong direction: a move away from the slow drop in the murder rate since 2008. The number “500” became the symbolically loaded demarcation, beyond which (for some reason) Chicago would then have to really worry about violence. Would the city hit that mark in 2012 or would it squeak by, only to start a new tally in 2013?
Late Friday afternoon, we got a clear answer from Chicago Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy.
"The city has seen its 500th homicide for 2012, a tragic number that is reflective of the gang violence and proliferation of illegal guns that have plagued some of our neighborhoods," he wrote in a statement.
McCarthy went on to say that 2012 got off to a bad start.
"Since the gang violence reduction strategy was adopted, we have seen drastic reductions in shootings and homicides that spiked early in the year," McCarthy wrote. "Shootings, which were at 40% increase in the first quarter, are at 11% year to date. Murders, which were at 66% increase in the first quarter, have been reduced to 15% in the fourth quarter - and although it results in an overall increase, it represents great progress.”
Counting the fallen might seem to be a simple exercise, but this macabre task is anything but, as we learned during several hours Friday — a period during which the status wasn't so clear.
Here’s what happened with the number “500” on Friday and why chasing a headline-grabbing number can be problematic.
On Thursday night, the body of 40-year-old Nathaniel Jackson was discovered outside a convenience store in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood. He had apparently been shot in the head and was pronounced dead at Stroger Hospital early Friday. No arrests were made.
The Associated Press originally reported that this shooting helped push Chicago above the 500 number, as did the Chicago Tribune and other outlets; all said this year’s total hadn’t been reached since 2008, when the year-end murder toll stood at 515.
Later on Friday, The Chicago Tribune reported that another killing — the death of 57-year-old Edward Phelps — was the incident that pushed the city over the 500 total, and that the Cook County medical examiner’s office was running more tests before ruling it a homicide.
Later that morning, before the police department itself had cleared the air, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office released a statement.
“Chicago has reached an unfortunate and tragic milestone, which not only marks a needless loss of life but serves as a reminder of the damage that illegal guns and conflicts between gangs cause in our neighborhoods,” the mayor said.
But, again, these deaths (either Jackson’s or Phelps’) turned out not to put Chicago over the top of 500 homicides, at least according to the Chicago Police Department. Late that morning, the department issued a statement that clarified the tally stood at 499 at that time, as one investigation was still pending classification.
The short-lived backtrack by the police department, as well as competing accounts from media outlets, begs the question: How are these homicides tallied and by whom? And, do the media get the last say?
We do know that Chicago homicide rates rise and fall, and we know the broad strokes. Ten years ago, the murder rate was higher. Ten years before that, it was even higher, with murders in the neighborhood of 943 in 1992 and 931 in 1994.
But the more fine-grained picture, especially on a day-by-day or even week-by-week basis, is harder to grasp. Consider that figures get revised. Take, for example, the aforementioned tally from 2008; according to a report issued in 2011, the figure for 2008 stood at 512. In a report issued one year later, the 2008 figure had been adjusted to 513.
News media accounts from that year differed as well, with ABC 7 reporting 508 murders and the Chicago Tribune reporting 509. The Sun-Times report at the time concurred with ABC with a 508 tally. The Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for its reporting of the 2008 violence.
Even on Friday, another peculiarity reared its head; as with election results, the media try to get to get as accurate a count as soon as possible. The officials? It turns out that they’re not in the same rush — or they wouldn't be, without so many media calls prodding them. For example, the Tribune looked to the the medical examiner’s office to get a jump on the latest tally, whereas the police department sometimes takes weeks to solidify some findings.
The classification problem
And then there are differences in how deaths are declared “homicides” in the first place.
Utilizing RedEye’s data, the 500 total would have been reached if the police deparment included the death of Derrick Woodhouse, 39, who was killed at the 6700 block of South Langley Ave. on morning of December 18th. The police department data omits that death from its list of homicides. DNAInfo.com seems to agree with the police, as the neighborhood news site reports that a woman hit Woodhouse with her car, and apparently did so in self-defense. According to that account, the driver fled the scene.
The RedEye's Tracy Swartz confirmed on Friday that she relies on data from the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, which issues homicide rulings, and that might explain differences with police tallies.
The Associated Press also reported on Friday that the city had 435 homicides last year, a number confirmed by the Chicago Data Portal site. However, the department's 2011 Murder Report says the number is 433. The Chicago RedEye data reports 446 murders for 2011.
Some of the discrepancies originate from the issue of what constitutes a homicide. Does a DUI ending in a death count? And when a police officer shoots down a suspect in self-defense, does that count?
That last question is a tough one. Last week people gathered in the North Side’s Rogers Park neighborhood to hang stars to honor the 2012 murder victims in Chicago. A group dubbed Occupy Rogers Park included the names of those involved in police shootings. These incidents are not included in the department’s list of homicides.
WBEZ is awaiting clarification from the Chicago Police Department about this question and others regarding how it classifies homicides for reporting purposes.
Regardless of how you arrive at it, what’s in a number?
The differing methodologies, definitions, and timetables may help explain why some media accounts differ. But those differences don’t explain the angst over the trend itself and whether we should worry. Even though they may not have agreed about exactly when (or even whether) the city hit the 500 mark, citizens, media, government officials and the police agree that the number is too high.
And the trend ... away from slow declines in recent years ... has people talking about solutions.
“We need to have the right combination of patience and urgency in dealing with this problem,” said Harold Pollack, the co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “If the 500 number mobilizes public attention and action, then I think it will push the public conversation in a good way.”
Harold Pollack said the ways to curb gun violence are the same — regardless of the homicide number.
“Most of the things we need to do I would tell you exactly the same thing if we had 400 murders,” Pollack said. “What really matters is that we execute public policies well, that we focus on illegal guns.”
In addition, he said, working with young people and their social emotional needs will lessen violent conflict.
“So many of the homicides that we just didn’t have to happen. They’re normal 18-year-old confrontations that escalate and someone’s got a gun and there’s a dead body,” Pollack said.
Mayor Emanuel would seem to agree.
“The brave officers of the Chicago Police Department work tirelessly to continually reduce crime, but this is not just a law enforcement issue,” he wrote in a statement. “From early-childhood education and longer school days to attracting jobs and improving educational options for adults, we are working with neighborhood activists, community groups, faith leaders, educators and business leaders to positively change the violent culture that is too prevalent in our communities.”
It’s possible the mayor and others at City Hall had long ago prepped what they’d say, should the city hit 500 before years end. And maybe the exact timing of the release isn’t all that significant; being in the limbo between 499 and 500 is still a hard place to be.
— South Side bureau reporter Natalie Moore contributed to this report.
Chicago Police homicide numbers as of 12/28/12: 490* (Public data reports have delay)
Sun-Times homicide data as of 12/28/12: 388
RedEye homicide numbers as of 12/28/12: 500