Chicago saw a 58 percent increase in homicides last year, but a new report from the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab says there is no definitive reason why.
“The sheer suddenness of the increase in Chicago helps rule out a lot of candidate explanations that people have been talking about,” said Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig.
Ludwig spoke with WBEZ’s Melba Lara about what researchers found and why the sudden spike in violence has no clear explanation.
Melba Lara: Criminologists often say that looking at year-over-year changes doesn't give a very accurate picture of crime trends. Why is the spike in violence in 2016 worth paying attention to?
Jens Ludwig: I think one of the things that’s very striking about the change we’ve seen in 2016 is the sheer magnitude of this. In some ways it’s very hard to make sense of what a 58 percent increase really means. One way to think about this is that the city of Chicago had 279 more people murdered in 2016 compared to 2015. The entire city of New York for 2016 had 335 murders, so the increase in Chicago was nearly equal to the total number of people killed in New York City over the course of the entire calendar year.
Lara: Should we be concerned that if we don’t know the “why” behind this increase that we won’t be able to stop them?
Ludwig: It turns out that most of the candidate explanations you would think of don’t seem to fit the data very well. That doesn’t mean that the city is necessarily paralyzed. If you look at how the city of Chicago is responding to the gun violence problem, I think that a social service sort of response will almost surely be an important part of what the city will make a big priority.
Lara: What is the one takeaway you want people to walk way with after reading this report?
Ludwig: The city of Chicago has gotten a lot of news attention for the gun violence problem because we have the largest number of homicides in the United States. That doesn’t mean that we’re the most dangerous city in the most dangerous city on a per capita basis. Chicago’s homicide rate per capita is about middle of the pack for U.S. cities, even after big increase in 2016.
But I think we are at a fork in the road, for Chicago.
I think one of the reasons that American cities have really rebounded so dramatically over the past several decades is because of the big fall in crime. … The choice that we make next about whether we make the investments required to get this problem under control, those decisions really will determine whether we will continue to have the thriving city of Chicago that we’ve come to know.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the full interview above.