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Afternoon Shift

Long Hot Summer: Understanding the crime stats fueling Supt. McCarthy and his long-term strategy

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Stop The Violence mural on the 1800 Block of North Drake Avenue. (Flickr/Jeff Zoline)
Summer after summer, Chicagoans are consumed by violence and a seemingly exponential murder rate. And, it seems, summer after summer, we talk about the need for whole families, better education, jobs and police boots on the ground—yet, the cycle continues. This year, Afternoon Shift hopes to move beyond the headlines in hopes of better understanding the violence—it roots and possible remedy—through frank, forward-thinking, holistic conversations in a series we’re calling, Long Hot Summer.

Police superintendents weren’t always slaves to crime statistics, but CompStat changed all that. The system, which collects data on everything from curfew violations to murder, generates reports on crime trends within a geographic area. Once the numbers are crunched, ranking officers are called to the carpet to field questions from their command staff and chief, who will undoubtedly be probed on the numbers by the mayor — and citizens — of the city he’s been charged to protect.

The system came into vogue in the mid-1990s after New York City’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, implemented CompStat to increase accountability in the department. During Bratton’s roughly two-year tenure, the murder rate halved. And so, when Bratton left, CompStat and its emphasis on accountability remained. Garry McCarthy was a captain in Bratton’s army at the time and made a name for himself at Bratton's CompStat meetings. Soon enough, he was running them.

Crime statistics have been the sharpest tool in McCarthy’s belt as he’s crafted a once unimaginable career. Before coming to Chicago, McCarthy was the top cop in Newark, New Jersey, where he helped reduce the murder rate by roughly a third.

Supt. McCarthy and his meteoric career are profiled in a piece by Noah Isackson the August issue of Chicago magazine. All eyes are on the superintendent as he combats the immediate concerns of a rising murder rate with a long-view strategy. He’s also battling a broader misinterpretation of the numbers, according to crime expert Tracey Meares. She says it’s inaccurate to say that Chicago is dangerous—because the city as a whole is not dangerous.

That said, Meares explained that the city, specifically areas of high crime like police districts 11 and 7, are incredibly dangerous, lethal even, for a select network of people. Meares pointed to the work of one of her frequent collaborators, Andrew V. Papachristos to sharpen the point. In 2011, the sociologist wrote a piece called “The Small World of Murder,” wherein he explained that 70 percent of the homicides in the 11TH Police District occurred in a network consisting of only 1,500 people, all with criminal records. For people in this network, the odds of being a homicide victim is 30 out of every 1,000 people. To further underline his point, Papchristos pointed out that the risk of stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan is less than 10 out of 1,000—meaning it is safer to walk around a real war zone than it is for young men in this network to walk around West Garfield Park.



So then what is the risk for West Garfield Park’s other 80,000 residents? When the network is removed, the odds drop to 1 in 1,000. Meares says this context is imperative to understanding crime statistics and McCarthy’s long-term strategy, which is bolstered by Meares’ ideas about legitimacy. The Yale Law School professor is helping Chicago’s police chief craft his strategy and train his troops. She joined Afternoon Shift to share her sage advice for fighting crime in Chicago.


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