Did Gun Violence Decrease Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel? Depends Where You Live

Map Illustration 2
Photo Illustration Elliott Ramos; Photo by Bill Healy / WBEZ
Map Illustration 2
Photo Illustration Elliott Ramos; Photo by Bill Healy / WBEZ

Did Gun Violence Decrease Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel? Depends Where You Live

In the summer of 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood next to his hand-picked police superintendent to outline the city’s plan to slow the frequent outbursts of gun violence. Emanuel would repeatedly address this problem during his eight years in office, which saw between 420 to 780 killings per year.

But at this August 2012 press conference, Emanuel focused on a recent decline in murders in Englewood, a violent African American neighborhood on the city’s South Side.

“I don't think in my time we would have ever said [that] in Englewood it would be one of the parts of the city leading in the reduction of homicides,” said Emanuel, who campaigned on public safety. “We're going to now replicate that in other parts of the city.”

In the years that followed, Emanuel would tout a historic low in gun violence, then watch as the city suffered a surge in killings that would put Chicago in the national spotlight.

By the end of Emanuel’s tenure, Chicago is largely back to where it was during his first full year in office: a city with more than 2,300 shootings per year. One big difference, however, is where the violence is most frequent.

The numbers show mixed results on the South Side but an increase in shootings on the West Side. Despite the geographic shift, the bloodshed mostly remains in the same communities that have struggled with gun violence for decades.

To understand where gun violence increased and decreased, WBEZ looked at three-year averages of shootings plus murders: 2010-2012, 2013-2015 and 2016-2018. (Notes: The first data set includes the year before Emanuel took office. In 2012, the city eliminated three districts, folding them into others.)

In an effort to curb the city’s gun violence, Emanuel hired more officers and criticized state gun laws. He also made bold, controversial selections to lead the police department. He hired (and fired) Garry McCarthy, a statistics-driven cop from Newark, N.J. Emanuel then ignored recommendations from the police board and promoted longtime Chicago cop Eddie Johnson.

Now, more than eight years after Emanuel first talked about public safety on the campaign trail, the city is still trying to figure out how to replicate the success in Englewood that the mayor boasted about back in 2012.

‘A very noticeable difference’

Some of the largest decreases in gun violence in the last eight years have happened in the 15th Ward — an oddly shaped political boundary that covers parts of the Back of the Yards and Englewood communities. At the start of the decade, the 15th Ward averaged more than 130 shootings-plus-murders per year. In the past three years, that same ward averages less than 97 — a drop of more than 25 percent.

Criminologists say it’s difficult to attribute changes in gun violence to a single incident or policy change. There are lots of parties involved in causing and fixing the problem.

Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, said that in recent years there has been a coordinated effort among residents, police and politicians to root out violence.

“There is a very noticeable difference in the atmosphere in my communities just in the last four years alone,” Lopez said. “The fact that in Back of the Yards — for the first time in almost a decade — you can walk around at 8:30 p.m. without fear of being gunned down is a beautiful thing.”

A University of Chicago study credits some of those improvements to new police technology implemented in the Englewood police district in February 2017. The technology hubs — which include video screens, gunshot detection systems and crime analysts — have since been rolled out to every district, but the greatest impact has been in Englewood.

“We saw something on the order of approximately a 30, 35% reduction in shootings, which is pretty significant,” said Max Kapustin, research director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “We haven't seen quite that strong of a finding in some of the other districts, and we're trying to understand why that is.”

One hypothesis is the Englewood District did a better job incorporating the new information and analysis provided by the technology centers, a testament, Kapustin said, to the importance of district commanders in preventing crime.

Lopez credits former Englewood District Commander Kenneth Johnson with fostering communication and being responsive to resident concerns. Johnson retired in 2018 and pleaded guilty to social security fraud on Tuesday.

Before Johnson, the Englewood District was led by Commander Leo Schmitz, who was known for interacting with the community. Schmitz left in 2015 to become head of the Illinois State Police and has since retired.

‘Everything takes time’

While some parts of the South Side have seen reduced gun violence, a large swath of the West Side has seen an increase under Emanuel.

“It just gets crazier by the day,” 18-year-old Elijah Blizzard told WBEZ after a recent police press conference at Franklin Park. “It’s terrible, and my mom is always thinking about moving, and I don’t want her to move.”

When Emanuel took office, three of the four most violent police districts were on the city’s South Side. Now, as he departs, three of the four most violent districts are on the West Side.

That does not surprise West Side pastor Rev. Ira Acree.

“It sounds like what I'm experiencing, and it makes a lot of sense considering how Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has just basically disinvested on the West Side in just a horrific manner,” Acree said.

Police officials said they are trying to improve the relationship with residents and foster a dialogue that Lopez said has worked so well on the South Side. But Acree said it will take more than just mending fences with police to dramatically reduce the gun violence.

Ernest Cato, the police commander of the Austin District on the West Side, said the long-term averages don’t give an accurate view of what’s going on right now. He said the department has been making progress since the historic spike in violence in 2016.

That year, almost every part of Chicago saw an increase in gun violence. Murders reached historic totals, and President Donald Trump frequently mentioned the city’s problems on the campaign trail.

Almost all of the city has seen a drop in gun violence compared to the historic highs in 2016, including the West Side.

The gun violence on the West Side is still higher than it was when Emanuel took office, but Cato says the reductions since 2016 show they are “definitely on the right path.”

“If you look at the [Austin] District, which is on the West Side of Chicago, you'll see double-digit decreases in homicides and shootings,” Cato said. “It's going to be the partnerships with the police department, with community organizations [that] will help sustain the good work that's been going on.”

Northwestern University professor Andrew Papachristos said while the West Side has been driving much of Chicago’s violence in recent years, the improvements since 2016 are noteworthy.

“If everybody is going down to the mean except the West Side that's a very different problem than if everybody's going back to the mean but the West Side is getting there more slowly,” Papachristos said.

Cato echoed that message: Everything takes time: You know this isn't a sprint, this is definitely a marathon.”

‘A tremendous amount of good’

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the longterm trends look the way they do on the West Side because the area was hit so hard by the 2016 spike in violence.

“You know we're not happy or satisfied with where we are, but we've certainly seen some reductions,” Johnson said.

Emanuel spokesman Patrick Mullane said in a statement that “since day one, we have been clear-eyed about the city's public safety challenges and our strategies to combat violence.”

He pointed to Emanuel’s initiatives to add more officers, and touted “20-year lows in robberies, burglaries and motor thefts citywide.” On violent crime, Mullane pointed the finger at gun laws and county prosecutors.

“Fighting crime and strengthening public safety equally depends on sensible gun laws in neighboring states and a criminal justice system that is held accountable,” Mullane said.

Kapustin, from the University of Chicago, noted that “no mayor is omnipotent … There are limits to what the mayor can do.”

But, he said, city government can do “quite a lot” when the mayor oversees billion dollar budgets and several agencies that could have big influences on gun violence.

“If those agencies, and city government more broadly, focuses their considerable resources on strategies and interventions that have evidence behind them that they actually … reduce violence,” he said. “I think that could do a tremendous amount of good.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.