Chicago already has more than 800 homicide deaths in 2021, the most violent year in a quarter century, according to autopsy records from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
By Wednesday, 812 people had died by homicide in the city, 5.5% more than last year through that date, according to the records, including decades of data obtained through an open-records request to the office. With two weeks remaining in 2021, the homicide count is already higher than any year since 1996, when there were 856 as the crack epidemic started to lose steam.
The homicides, most carried out with guns, began to surge in the spring of 2020 after the pandemic’s arrival. The violence intensified after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. And it has not let up.
“One of the responses to COVID was being there to support people, handing out food and PPE,” said Chris Patterson, assistant secretary of Illinois’s new Office of Firearm Violence Prevention. “But we did very little with mental health and being there for individuals as they were suffering through trauma of not only just a pandemic, but seeing violence on a day-to-day basis.”
The medical examiner’s homicide figures tend to run about 5% higher than Chicago Police Department murder counts, which do not include expressway shootings because the expressways are the jurisdiction of the Illinois State Police. CPD’s murder numbers also exclude homicides deemed justified.
Chicago police Supt. David Brown has struggled all year to explain why the shooting surge has persisted.
“The diagnosis of what has happened over the last two years is how we get the right prescription,” Brown said at a news conference last week, noting that the rates of some other crimes, including robbery and burglary, are way down.
At the news conference, the top cop seemed to oppose politicians calling for a tough law-and-order response.
“Many people just jump right to the conclusion we need to re-implement mass incarceration, which failed — just wasn’t the right prescription for what was happening with the crack cocaine epidemic,” Brown said.
Many other times this year, however, Brown has blamed the shooting on an “an environment of lawlessness” created by 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.
Some anti-violence experts outside the Police Department say it’s not wrong to focus on defendants released by the courts.
But Damien Morris, who heads violence prevention programs for the West Side-based Breakthrough Urban Ministries, said the problem is that the defendants get out of jail without sufficient services.
“If you just release them with no guidance — with nobody to be an extra set of eyes on them — then they’re going to fall back into the life that they know,” Morris said.
Another dire need, Morris said, is funding to add to the city’s roughly 200 street outreach workers — mostly former gang members who use their life experience to quell neighborhood disputes.
Experts point out that Chicago’s homicide surge coincides with elevated violence in many other cities. And, they say, while the causes of gun violence trends are notoriously difficult to pinpoint, Chicago’s current surge seems tied to a few factors, starting with the pandemic.
“COVID shut down the things that keep most communities safe — parks, schools, recreational sports, employment,” said Andrew Papachristos, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies gun violence.
Second, Papachristos said, is increased estrangement from government, especially the criminal justice system.
Despite social disconnection caused by the pandemic, he said, people are “not turning to the state to solve problems” and instead taking matters into their own hands.
Another factor in the gun-violence surge is the increased presence of guns.
“When people don’t feel safe in this country, they arm themselves,” Papachristos said. “Perversely, every shred of evidence tells us that carrying a gun makes you less safe.”
Papachristos said the duration of the gun-violence surge owes to the persistence of all three of those factors.
This month Gov. JB Pritzker signed a measure aimed at providing millions of dollars toward community anti-violence efforts. Patterson’s office, created this year, will distribute many of those funds.