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A man stands while speaking to antiviolence outreach coworkers at the Faith Temple Baptist Church in the Englewood neighborhood

Andre Thomas, executive director of Integrity and Fidelity, speaks to outreach workers at the Faith Temple Baptist Church in Englewood, before they headed out to canvass hot spots in the East and West Englewood areas, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023.

Pat Nabong

Chicago ends year with fewer shootings, but many more robbers are using guns as overall crime remains high

Numbers don’t mean much to Jonas Jacox, who works to make a stretch of Roseland safer.

He trusts instead the power of his street outreach even when the odds seem against him. Like when the gang member he was mentoring was shot dead on his way to an anti-violence program over the summer.

“Sometimes guys are worse off in the program because we’re turning predators into prey,” he says.

It’s a reminder of the uncertain work ahead as the city continues to address a stubbornly high crime rate, even as shootings and homicides dropped for a second year in a row in 2023.

While the city has followed a national trend of lowered gun violence, it has stood nearly alone in seeing a spike in robberies — nearly 40% more victims than the year before.



Three men walk together in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood

From left, Jonas Jacox, James “Coach Jay Bee” Brown, and Curtis Bivens members of violence prevention and outreach group Seeds of Roseland walk together in Fernwood Park in the Roseland neighborhood, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

And more robbers are carrying guns, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab. In 2019, about 40% of robberies involved a gun. That surged to 60% in 2023.

“The presence of firearms in the U.S. is what makes violence more lethal,” said Kim Smith, a director at the lab. “So this share of robberies with firearms is cause for concern.”

Other violent crime was also up in the city this past year: a 17% increase in aggravated battery and an almost 7% rise in assaults.

While there were fewer carjackings, car thefts were way up, more than three times higher than before the pandemic.

Experts have theories for 2023’s trends: criminals turning to other crimes, more potential victims on the street after the pandemic, continued proliferation of firearms.

There is also debate over solutions as Mayor Brandon Johnson rolls out a safety plan that targets some, but not all, of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods with more resources.

It loosely follows former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan, which Smith credits with having some success. “Absent those investments, we could have done worse,” Smith said. “But we still have more to do.”

Gun violence

At least 632 people were killed in Chicago in 2023, down 15% from the year before, slightly better than the national average of 12%. Shootings were down 13%.

Driving that change was a decrease in victims in their 20s, the age range of people historically most likely to be wounded or killed.

“That’s something we didn’t expect to see,” Smith said, suggesting that the city’s efforts to support men in their 20s is paying off.

Yet at the same time, the share of homicide victims over age 30 has increased from 41% to 53% since 2019. And for the second year in a row, a larger share of people under 19 were shot.

Homicides in 2023 were still substantially higher than before the pandemic: at least 632 compared to 521 in 2019, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

And the gap between the safest and most dangerous neighborhoods remained wide. Communities with the highest homicide rates saw 30 times more murders than neighborhoods with the lowest rates, according to the crime lab.



Close up photo of Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling

Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling speaks to WBEZ investigative reporter Dan Mihalopoulos inside his office at the Chicago Police Department headquarters in the Bronzeville neighborhood, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

Pat Nabong

Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling, on the job just three months, told the Sun-Times his department has focused on the most violent beats. Tactical teams have been deployed on some of the worst blocks, he said.

“It’s not just parking them there, but making sure that they have the intel, the information, that’s going to help them apprehend any offenders in those locations who are behind the shootings,” Snelling said.

Robberies, carjackings, thefts

Robberies surged in Chicago in 2023, more than in almost any major city.

The city closed the year with more than 11,700 robbery victims, a nearly 40% increase over the previous year’s 8,485. In 2020, the year had more than 7,000.

It’s unclear why Chicago had more robberies, bucking a national trend that saw that crime fall by 9%.

It may simply be because more people are out and about, three years after the pandemic lockdown, according to David Olson, a professor who studies crime trends at Loyola University Chicago.

An increase in firearms may also have prompted some would-be thieves to commit robbery instead, Olson said. The rise in robberies has been paired with a slight decrease in reported thefts and burglaries, he noted.

“The prevalence of guns can change what kinds of crimes people commit,” Olson said. “Someone may change from burglary to robbery because, if one crime becomes too risky, there’s other crimes to commit.”

Carjackings were down too. The city saw more than 1,500 carjacking victims in 2023, according to police data, down from 1,942 in 2022 and a peak of 2,149 in 2021. But that’s still much higher than the 736 carjacking victims in 2019.

Meanwhile, there were more than 29,000 car thefts over the past year (that’s one stolen almost every 20 minutes), far above the 8,800 reported stolen in 2019, as thieves exploited weaknesses in certain brands to steal cars without a key.

Snelling said the uptick in robberies and car thefts is related, with criminals stealing cars to use in other crimes like robberies and smash-and-grabs.

He credited CPD’s vehicular hijacking team for cracking down on carjacking crews. “We’ve made some significant gains in arrests when it comes to that,” Snelling said.

The superintendent said his crime-fighting strategy is to give district commanders the autonomy to address their specific needs.

“I cannot apply a one-size-fits-all crime strategy across the entire city,” he said. “Because that strategy may not be effective for certain districts.”

Solutions

Andre Thomas has seen violence drop over the last two years in parts of Englewood where his group Integrity and Fidelity does street outreach and violence prevention.

Thomas believes reducing gun violence is simple. Money needs to be spent in these communities to solve the root problems of inequality.

“No one with a 40-hour job is going out and shooting and killing,” he said.

A lot of the violence his group sees stems from personal or family conflicts, he said.



Andre Thomas, executive director of Integrity and Fidelity, stands outside Faith Temple Baptist Church in Englewood

Andre Thomas, executive director of Integrity and Fidelity, stands outside the Faith Temple Baptist Church in the Englewood neighborhood, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023.

Pat Nabong

Jacox, the street outreach worker, is director of the violence prevention group Seeds of Roseland. To him, addressing gun violence requires sustained investment and effective outreach from people who know the communities they serve.

The name of his group, Seeds of Roseland, stands for social, education, and economic development — what he says are needed for breaking the cycle of violence.

“These guys’ primary needs are not met,” said Jacox, who lost a brother to gun violence two years ago.

He measures his success on the individual level.

“I just ran into one of the first guys I worked with. He told me how we held him accountable. We used everyone as a support group to get to him,” Jacox said.

The young man didn’t understand then “but now he gets it.” He’s in school and works construction.

“We do have impact,” Jacox said. “It’s young men going in the wrong direction and we give them an opportunity.”

The new year will see a new violence prevention plan for the city unveiled by Mayor Johnson in the last weeks of 2023. It will focus investments and resources in four of the city’s most violent neighborhoods: West Garfield Park, Little Village, Englewood and Austin.

Lightfoot poured funding into 15 of the most violent neighborhoods. Some of those communities are worse off now, like Chatham and South Shore, but they aren’t specifically addressed in Johnson’s plan.

Snelling said police resources will not be moved from any neighborhoods.

“The mayor is talking mostly about bringing more resources into those neighborhoods, not just law enforcement,” he said. “Law enforcement is not going to move out of there. It’s not like we’re going to pick up and leave and just focus on four other areas.

“What the mayor’s plan does, it brings in supplemental efforts to help us keep that crime down,” he said.

Lance Williams, a professor of urban studies at Northeastern Illinois University, said violence will continue to plague many neighborhoods until the city addresses historic disinvestment.

“Violence in Chicago is driven by some larger, systemic issues creating a high level of stress among a particular group of guys in the streets who lack opportunities,” Williams said. “The larger factors haven’t gone away.”

Data analysis by Andy Boyle

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