An anti-violence leader on Chicago’s South Side said he notices the difference every day.
“It feels good right now to be able to walk outside or be at work and not have to duck because shots are fired,” said Joshua Coakley, who helps run a program that reaches out to potential shooters in Auburn Gresham, an area with one of the city’s biggest drops in murders over the last two years. “To go weeks with no shooting is phenomenal.”
Gun violence citywide has been trending down for about 20 months. By Thursday night, the Chicago Police Department had counted 420 murders during the year’s first eight months. That tally is 7.9% less than during the first eight months of 2022 and 21.3% less than during those months of 2021, when Chicago had its worst gun violence in a quarter century.
“The shootings are down because people have a mutual understanding that, ‘Hey, we don’t have to resort to violence,’ ” said Coakley, external executive director for the nonprofit Target Area Development Corp. “We can enjoy the outside activities and events that are in our community without shooting.”
A WBEZ analysis of city data found that this year’s murder count also brings the city just below Chicago’s January-through-August average since 1957, the earliest point for monthly CPD murder data.
But the murder tally remains far higher than it was just a few years ago. From 2004 to 2015, the first eight months of each year averaged 310 murders, according to the WBEZ analysis.
“We have learned to accept just a staggeringly high rate of very, very serious violence in Chicago, and, frankly, the United States, relative to what most other high-income societies tolerate,” said Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
Gun violence that upends lives, drags down neighborhoods
The murder numbers first soared after the 2015 release of video footage showing a Chicago police officer firing 16 shots into teenager Laquan McDonald. They soared again in 2020 after COVID’s arrival and a Minneapolis cop’s murder of George Floyd.
Of this year’s Chicago homicides, 90.3% were caused by gunshot wounds, according to Cook County Medical Examiner’s data.
The violence disrupts lives beyond the victims and their families.
A study led by University of Cambridge criminologist Charles Lanfear found that 56% of Black and Latino Chicagoans had witnessed at least one shooting before turning 40.
“We expected levels of exposure to gun violence to be high, but not this high,” Lanfear said in a statement about his study, published in May by an American Medical Association journal. “A substantial portion of Chicago’s population could be living with trauma as a result of witnessing shootings and homicides, often at a very young age.”
Long-term stress from exposure to firearm violence “can contribute to everything from lower test scores for school kids to diminished life expectancy through heart disease,” Lanfear said.
Just 15 of the city’s 77 community areas account for nearly 66% of this year’s murders, the WBEZ analysis found.
“If you map out, block by block, where gun violence is concentrated, you just start to see the unbelievable ripple effect on kids and families and on our ability to invest in the kind of human capital we need to be a vibrant city,” Ander said.
A need for better policing, more community funding
The biggest tool for tamping down Chicago’s violence is the Police Department. CPD’s official budget, $1.94 billion this year, does not account for hundreds of millions spent annually on pensions, lawsuit settlements, overtime overruns and fleet management.
Mayor Brandon Johnson’s biggest move so far on public safety came Aug. 14, when he announced he had chosen CPD counterterrorism chief Larry Snelling to be the department’s permanent superintendent.
Snelling, whose promotion awaits City Council approval, told reporters his top priorities would be officer wellness efforts and training.
“When these officers feel good about themselves and they feel good about their department — when they feel good about the job that they’re doing — they’ll feel good and great with the community,” Snelling said. “In order for officers to love someone else, we have to love them.”
Outside policing, another tool against Chicago’s violence is known as “community violence intervention,” in which former gang members reach out to shooters and potential shooters, mediate their conflicts, and connect them to jobs and services ranging from trauma therapy to parenting support.
Starting with philanthropic funding in 2017, the community-based effort initially covered 21 crime hot spots in three neighborhoods, Northwestern University sociologist Andrew Papachristos recalled in the Chicago Tribune. “The impact was immediate. Shootings at those locations were significantly lower when ‘peacekeepers’ were on duty.”
Today, the violence prevention effort gets city and state funding and covers 102 hot spots year round in 14 Chicago neighborhoods, Papachristos wrote.
“There is a growing consensus among policymakers, advocates, nonprofits and business leaders that Chicago should scale up community violence intervention programs,” he wrote, adding that the city needs far more than the 230 CVI workers now scattered across the city. “By the best estimates, they’re serving about 15% to 20% of the thousands of high-risk individuals in Chicago”
Coakley, the South Side anti-violence leader, said CVI also needs more buy-in from employers and unions: “If I tell you to put down the guns, what am I telling you to pick up? Am I giving you the opportunity to be unionized or learn a trade that can possibly lead you to successful reentry [from prison]?”
Another dire need is prevention efforts for children, Ander said.
“We still have about 20% of kids in Chicago that don’t graduate from high school,” she said. “Right now, there are probably between 25,000 and 30,000 school-aged young people who are no longer engaged in school and do not yet have a high school diploma.”
Mayor Johnson’s transition plan, released in July, calls for dozens of new public-safety efforts but offers no recommendations on the $800 million in new taxes and fees that he promised during his campaign.
As federal stimulus money dries up over the next few years, the financial challenges to take on gun violence will only grow larger.