At Summer’s End, Chicago Murders Are Outpacing Any Year In A Quarter Century

police car
Police tape marks off a street as officers investigate a fatal shooting on Chicago’s South Side on June 15. In the first eight months of 2021, the city saw more murders than any year since 1996. Teresa Crawford / AP
police car
Police tape marks off a street as officers investigate a fatal shooting on Chicago’s South Side on June 15. In the first eight months of 2021, the city saw more murders than any year since 1996. Teresa Crawford / AP

At Summer’s End, Chicago Murders Are Outpacing Any Year In A Quarter Century

As summer winds down, Chicago is on pace to have its highest annual murder tally in a quarter century.

Through Tuesday night, according to CPD figures, the year had 524 murders — 3% more to date than 2020, a year when gun violence swept through cities across the country after the pandemic’s arrival and George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Chicago appears headed toward its highest annual homicide count since 1996, when murders totaled 796 at the tail end of a crime wave fueled by crack cocaine.

“Young men feel in fear of their lives,” said Lance Williams, a Northeastern Illinois University professor of urban community studies who works with street outreach groups on the city’s South and West sides. “They’re getting guns to try to protect themselves.”

Williams said street gangs traditionally had just one or two guns stashed away for sharing among members.

“Now it’s like everybody — every person that you know — has got a gun,” he said.

Recent months have been particularly deadly. CPD reported 105 murders in July and 78 in August.

Experts say it’s impossible to pinpoint a single reason Chicago’s shooting surge began or has lasted so long. Pandemic-induced anxiety and economic collapse are two of the most commonly cited factors. Others include a withdrawal by cops due to COVID-19 precautions, dwindling police ranks, community distrust with officers that grew more intense after Floyd’s killing, a reduction in anti-violence work and youth activities during the pandemic, and a court system even more sluggish than it was before the virus arrived.

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown has focused on just one factor. He has repeatedly blamed the gun-violence surge on bail reforms, which have led to pretrial release of gun defendants who may not have been able to pay their way out of jail before the reforms were implemented.

Chicago is hardly alone among big cities that saw murders surge last year. But the violence here follows a shooting spree of similar proportions in 2016 and 2017.

The extreme levels of gun violence in four of the last six years does not necessarily signal a new normal, insisted Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. That’s if Chicago gets serious about focusing resources “where they can do the most good.”

“The burden of the pandemic wasn’t equally distributed,” Ander said. “Neither is the burden of the gun violence.”

Ander said Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides — the communities most devastated by the shooting surge — need a lot more mental health support, youth opportunities, jobs, and outreach to people at risk of shooting or being shot.

Beyond pouring in those resources, Ander said, “we also then need the criminal justice system to be aligned around violence reduction.”

For example, she said, there is no need to choose between bail reform and public safety if the people released from jail have access to the resources they need to stay out of trouble: “The goal needs to be both reducing incarceration and reducing gun violence.”

In normal times, the start of a new school year would help curb summer violence. But Northwestern University emeritus political scientist Wesley Skogan, another expert on crime and policing, is watching for Chicago Public Schools fall enrollment figures. When the pandemic set in last year, CPS lost contact with some students. Last fall, enrollment plummeted and the city’s murder numbers remained elevated.

“We’re looking forward to finding out the extent to which students now reconnect with schools and show up again,” Skogan said, pointing out that COVID-19’s continued spread has made parents “very leery about sending their kids back to school right now.”

Tamping down Chicago’s violence in the long term, Williams said, means addressing everything from gun accessibility to housing segregation, from dysfunctional schools to economic disinvestment — all factors long preceding the pandemic in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

And, Williams said, the people most likely to be involved with gun violence need jobs, therapy, training and various support that could cost a billion dollars a year. That may sound like a lot, he said, “but the cost of not fixing it is higher.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.