After soaring for two years, shootings and homicides have dropped significantly in Chicago for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic upended normal life and ushered in a nationwide rise in violent crime.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her police superintendent, David Brown, have touted city initiatives that have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for anti-violence efforts and have deployed more cops to the most violent police beats.
But gun violence remains alarmingly high in Chicago, and it’s unclear how well the mayor’s measures have worked as she faces a tough reelection campaign with public safety the top issue.
Chicago will end the year with at least 723 people murdered, a 13% decrease from last year but still more than any other American city.
Overall the number of reported crimes has risen by more than 12% from last year, unnerving residents, sending some businesses packing and complicating the city’s efforts to recover from the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Thefts, including those targeting vehicles, have spiked while burglaries and robberies have also climbed. Carjackings, which pushed police to launch a specialized task force, fell by 14% but are still being committed at a near-record clip after surging in 2020.
While most violent crime decreased in 2022, thefts of all kind rose in Chicago
Federal money that has helped fund many of the city’s public safety initiatives is expected to dry up in the coming years. That means the winner of next year’s mayoral election will have some tough decisions to make: How to keep addressing the root causes of violence while also funding a police department that is facing serious staffing issues and costly court-ordered reforms.
“We have a much longer way to go,” said Susan Lee, the former deputy mayor for public safety who was the architect of Lightfoot’s signature “Our City Our Safety” initiative targeting 15 historically violent community areas with a flood of new resources.
Lee said residents should be thankful that gun violence has begun to trend downward. But she argued that city officials must devise a “one Chicago” approach to crime as issues that have long troubled neighborhoods on the South and West sides have spread to the Loop and other areas of the city.
“[We] should not be patting ourselves on the back when the … absolute number of shootings and homicides is so high that people are afraid to do their daily functions,” said Lee, who now serves as the chief strategy and policy officer for the violence prevention group Chicago CRED. “We are still in a crisis.”
‘Very much a work in progress’
The drop in gun violence this past year has been a sharp contrast to previous years of Lightfoot’s administration. She took office halfway through 2019, a year when Chicago recorded 523 homicides, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Homicides rose 50% in Chicago from 2019 to 2020 while the national rate rose 30%. They jumped by over 6% from 2020 to 2021, then dropped by 13% this year, on pace with New York City and better than Washington, D.C. (-12%); Philadelphia (-7%) and Los Angeles (-6%).
At least 723 homicides were recorded in Chicago by Dec. 25, down from 835 last year, according to the medical examiner’s office. At least 3,477 other people had been wounded in shootings by Dec. 27, a 20% drop from the same point last year, according to city data.
“It’s a decline, and it’s significant,” said crime data analyst Jeff Asher, whose Datalytics website tracks homicide data from cities across the nation. “Not every city saw declines. Not every city saw declines as big as Chicago, which still has a lot of murders and shootings.”
The drop in shootings and homicides extended to all but one of the 15 communities targeted in the safety plan drafted by Lee and adopted by Lightfoot, according to data analyzed by the Sun-Times.
In fact, the overall decline in homicides was driven by steep drops in those communities. West Pullman, Englewood and North Lawndale saw the biggest improvement this year. South Lawndale was slightly worse than last year.
The mayor acknowledged in an interview with the Sun-Times that her safety plan is “still very much a work in progress” as she tries to transform Chicago into “the safest big city in the country” with a “whole of city government approach.”
Lightfoot said she hopes to “bring lasting peace” to 15 historically violent communities on the South and West sides by focusing on “gangs, guns and investments,” addressing specific safety concerns and offering opportunities to young people.
“Crime is a complicated issue and it requires a comprehensive, multi-tiered strategy,” she said. “And that’s really what we’ve tried to do. And then looking ahead to next year, it’s taking the successes and the progress of this year and using that as the floor to build on.”
‘Why things got better, I have no idea’
Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist who has long studied gun violence in Chicago, agrees that investing in communities is key to lowering crime. But he’s not sure how much of this year’s decline in gun violence can be credited to measures taken so far by the Lightfoot administration.
“I think every life that is preserved should be noted and celebrated,” he told the Sun-Times. “In terms of why things got better, I have no idea.”
Sharkey blamed the spike in recent years on more guns on the streets, public spaces shut down during the pandemic, and the protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The police department has been targeting crime in 55 of the city’s most violent police beats by deploying a constant stream of officers, some of whom have been pulled from outside police districts or had their time-off canceled to fill shifts.
Such tactics can have an impact on reducing violence, Sharkey said, though there are serious downsides.
“Residents of Chicago have a strained relationship with law enforcement, to put it mildly,” said Sharkey, who has examined crime trends in Chicago going back to 1965. “And there’s lots of good evidence that very aggressive forms of policing harm young people, so it’s a trade-off.
“I think the best models are when police are working with residents to solve local problems,” he said.
Sharkey believes violence should be viewed through a wider lens, looking at trends over decades instead of months or years and analyzing metropolitan areas instead of just neighborhoods or cities.
A paper he co-wrote that addressed inequality and violence in Chicago over nearly six decades found that “a set of neighborhoods” on the South and West sides “have consistently been the most violent.”
He argued that the circumstances won’t change until the city reckons with its “extreme economic segregation [and] extreme racial and ethnic segregation.”
“That has to be a part of the long-term conversation about how to reduce violence in Chicago,” he said. “Make sure the neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by violence for the last 60 years get the investments that they need to really transform in a way that’s going to be sustained for not just the next few years, but the next few decades.”
Following the money
The “Our City Our Safety” plan was launched in the summer of 2020 and followed an emerging trend of treating gun violence as a public health issue. The plan aimed to narrow Chicago’s “safety gap” — the disparity between the most and least violent areas of the city that widened during the pandemic.
It called for flooding the most dangerous communities with new resources — from violence intervention programs to job training and placement, housing and health —Â taking cues from its COVID-19 response by pulling together various agencies and outside partners.
Between 2021 and 2023, Lightfoot’s budgets have allocated at least $561 million for violence prevention and reduction, like youth employment programs and cleaning up vacant lots.
But it’s been difficult to follow the money and measure the impact, according to Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, known for its detailed analyses of the city finances. “It raises questions about the level of coordination, the strategy [and] how effective the strategy is even able to be communicated,” he said.
The police budget will swell to nearly $2 billion next year — up from the $1.66 billion that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel set aside in his 2019 budget.
The spike in anti-violence spending began as the city, county and state governments started collecting federal stimulus money aimed at averting a deeper economic collapse in the wake of the pandemic.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared gun violence a public health crisis and dedicated huge amounts of money toward it. His 2023 budget includes at least $1.1 billion for such efforts, with more than $318 million coming from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
The city’s anti-violence efforts also come largely from ARPA, as well as the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. But Lee said she’s concerned a significant portion of that money remains unspent.
While the majority of crimes in Chicago still take place in the mayor’s priority community areas, major crimes decreased in those areas in 2022
Asked about the slow rollout, Lightfoot explained that her administration’s goal was to send money “as far down to the block level as possible,” distributing money to smaller groups instead of just large social service organizations.
“I really wanted this to have real, lasting impact at that micro-block level,” she said. “And that takes more time.”
In February, city officials held a series of events to inform smaller community organizations about funding opportunities and address the “pain points in trying to distribute this money,” the mayor said.
“Ultimately, you reach more people and you then have the ability to employ more people,” she said. “You build up that muscle memory and infrastructure that is always going to be important down the road, whether it’s in the intermediate or the longer term.”
The ARPA money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026, giving the winner of next year’s mayoral race some extra resources for public safety. But there are already alarms about what happens when that money is exhausted.
“There are lots of cities that are facing this question: How do you avoid the possible consequences when federal funds run out?,” Starkey said. “And even when state government funds run out. I think that’s the crucial issue facing most big cities.”
Lightfoot said she doesn’t expect another huge infusion of outside cash if she’s reelected, though she noted that some of the city’s “one-time” investments will “last much longer than the lifetime of the ARPA funding.”
She insisted the winner of the mayor’s race won’t be left with looming — and potentially controversial — funding decisions.
“We should never have to make that choice between the police budget and the other necessary, essential tools that will make a long-term impact on community safety,” she said. “Once you create expectations through the community, and you raise the floor, you can’t go back.”
‘Everybody wants immediate results’
There are as many visions for public safety in Chicago as there are mayoral candidates.
State Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, and Ald. Sophia King (4th) have offered detailed plans that would prioritize spending on both the police department and violence prevention efforts.
Activist Ja’Mal Green and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson have laid out initiatives that don’t directly involve police, with Johnson going as far as proposing a freeze on the police budget.
Businessman Willie Wilson and former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas have focused their platforms on revamping the police force.
Longtime political consultant Delmarie Cobb said she worries that fear of crime among voters will prompt candidates to stake out positions that call for more aggressive policing instead of investing resources in workforce and economic development in poor neighborhoods.
“[Mayoral candidates] get stuck with law and order, like it’s all they know. They just worry they are going to look weak on crime,” Cobb said. “I think they never quite commit [to alternative approaches to crime]. They see it as everybody wants immediate results, and they think other approaches are slow.”
Lee, the former deputy mayor for public safety, said it would be “a disaster” if a new mayor prioritized only police spending and ignored community-based anti-violence efforts.
“Do we need more cops? Chicago has more per capita cops than New York and L.A., and they seem to be doing fine,” Lee said. “If more cops was going to make Chicago safer, we would’ve been the safest city.”
Data from the city’s inspector general’s office seems to bear Lee out. Added patrols in violent areas did not generate more police activity, according to department arrest and stop data reported to the office.
The number of investigative stops by Chicago police — when officers stop a person on the street for questioning or a search — was slightly lower than in 2021, continuing a decline that saw the number of stops plummet by more than 50% from 2019 levels.
In the city’s most violent police district, Harrison on the West Side, the number of shootings fell by 25% in 2022.Â At the same time, the district recorded 1,000 fewer arrests — a drop of more than 20% — and investigative stops declined by more than a third year-to-year.
Asked about the drop, Supt. Brown cited the legalization of marijuana and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s decision to raise the bar for bringing felony shoplifting charges.
But Brown added that “stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration is not going to be the solution here,” instead emphasizing the city’s focus on investing in communities, engaging with residents and going after illegal guns.
The superintendent said the focus on suppressing violence in the 55 worst beats is built on a “problem-solving model” that looks to assist community members, not just enforce the law.
As the mayor’s race kicks into full gear, a list of candidates have already vowed to fire Brown. But the superintendent said he remains focused on community engagement, reforming the department, utilizing more technology, retaining talent and bolstering officer wellness.
“There’s a lot more that we have in our 2023 strategies,” he said.
Success in North Lawndale
While candidates spar over police and crime, community leaders worry their work on violence prevention will fall by the wayside again.
In North Lawndale, the past three years have seen record levels of city funding for anti-violence programs that target young men who are at the greatest risk of becoming shooters or victims, according to Jorge Matos, senior director of street outreach for READI Chicago.
When Matos began working in the field in the early 2000s, funding for anti-violence work was unpredictable, making it hard to develop experienced staff or even run a program that lasted long enough to provide the counseling and skills development participants needed to truly change their lives.
Funding increased with an influx of philanthropic spending around 2016, and state, federal and city spending surged as the pandemic caused violence to spike in Chicago.
In 2022, a collaboration between nonprofit agencies READI, Chicago CRED, UCAN and North Lawndale Employment Network has enabled the groups to enroll more than 500 men in the West Side neighborhood. That’s just under half the 1,200 North Lawndale residents estimated to be at the greatest risk of becoming involved in gun violence.
In 2022, the number of shootings in North Lawndale fell by 40%, among the largest drops in the city. Losing funding would be a huge step backward, Matos said.
“We’re at the point where we’re almost out of that phase of COVID and the unrest and all the other things layered on top of that,” Matos said. “We are starting to get to that point where we are going to see reductions.”
Terrance Henigan, a lifelong resident of North Lawndale who runs a barbershop on South Pulaski Road and West 15th Street, said his patrons had fewer murders to talk about this year, though his West Side neighborhood remains unacceptably dangerous.
”I think part of it was that people see more people working (in 2022), we have more things like this game here,” Henigan said as he watched his nephew dribble down the court in the semifinals of a winter break basketball tournament at the Franklin Park Fieldhouse.
“People are seeing the constructive people in the community do positive things,” Henigan said. “(During the pandemic) things shut down. Kids had nothing to do, and all they saw was bad things. … Violence gets more violence, and you have one death in the community, it gets you three more.
“Positive things get you more positive things.”