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CPD officers in riot gear maintain order during protests surrounding the NATO summit on Sunday.

The city’s real crime problem – soaring murder rate – is front-burner now that NATO is over

by Nolan Peterson
May 22, 2012

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Chicago Crime Lab
If Chicago were a war zone, it would be a deadlier one for Americans than Afghanistan.
In fact, according to the Department of Defense and FBI data, the number of Chicagoans murdered is two and a half times U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

With NATO in the rear-view mirror, area law enforcement officials and politicians will turn their attention away from unruly protestors and visiting heads of state and back to the city’s rising murder rate – up 54 percent from last year, according to police data.

Last week Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new strategy to combat gang activity in crime hot spots to halt the killing.
The strategy, called a wraparound plan, focuses on improving neighborhood services after police descend on an area to target and remove gangs.
"Once we make arrests, and we eliminate a narcotics organization, we are committed to holding onto that turf, to that territory, to squeeze out the drug market and the violence,” Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said in a press conference last week.

Homicides in Chicago have spiked this year, though overall crime is down. Chicago has had 169 murders in 2012, compared to 110 at the same date last year.

The plan announced last week is part of McCarthy’s broader strategy to use data to concentrate police resources in troubled parts of the city – a strategy that reduced overall crime rates in New York by 80 percent in the 1990s.

One of the programs developed in New York in the 1990s was a data-mapping system used to identify crime hot-spots. McCarthy brought the system, called CompStat, to Chicago last year; it helps police identify neighborhoods in which crime is likely to occur by tracking crime report trends.

“Smart policing is about using resources and information to prevent violence,” said Andrew Papachristos, a Harvard sociologist who studies street gangs, violent crime and gun violence. “It’s not about going out and arresting people, it’s about cooling people down.”
According to the Chicago Crime Lab, a research program at the University of Chicago, New York’s turnaround in the 1990s was accomplished without mass incarcerations. Incarceration rates actually decreased by 28 percent in New York, while the national incarceration rate increased by 65 percent during the same period.

Papachristos, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago, said New York’s turnaround was McCarthy’s blueprint for how to fight gang violence in Chicago.

“The typical solution to gang violence used to be to go in and lock up as many gang members as possible,” Papachristos said. “The new strategy is not to lock up everyone but to go talk to the community, find out who is shooting each other, and what the disputes are about.”

McCarthy, who was a top police official in New York, acknowledged in a February interview for the Chicago Crime Lab that while lessons learned from New York are applicable, there are unique challenges to fighting crime in Chicago.

“In NYC at the midway point of 2011, they had seized 1,185 firearms by arrest,” McCarthy said in February. “At that same time, Chicago, a city with one-third the population, one-third the landmass, one-third the police department, had seized 4,422; that’s seven guns per capita for every one that NYC seizes.”

Controversial strategies used in New York, such as the aggressive stop and frisk program, have not been adopted in Chicago.

“I think the key challenge for Chicago is to figure out a way to get the benefits of what New York has done without all of the collateral costs to our most disadvantaged citizens,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the Chicago Crime Lab, during a symposium in Chicago in February that included McCarthy and several crime experts.

Papachristos, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar, said that some of the strategies that worked in New York in the 1990s may not be applicable to Chicago’s brand of gang violence.

“One thing unique about Chicago that makes it very different from New York is the presence of highly organized gangs,” Papachristos said. “More than half of the violence is gang-related, that means a different response is necessary.”

The surge in murders this year, although troubling, is an anomaly in an otherwise ongoing trend of decreasing crime rates. Chicago’s overall crime rate is down 11 percent from last year, and, Papachristos said, McCarthy’s strategy seems to be working.

“I’d say this is a short-term fluctuation,” Papachristos said, referring to the city’s murder rate. “Crime is way down in the long run.”

Explanations for the surge in murders range from the unseasonably warm winter to a police personnel shortage due to budget cuts.

According to City Hall, the police department is short nearly 2,300 officers.

The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police said that until Chicago is able to add more officers to its ranks, McCarthy’s strategy will just keep crime at bay.

“We are putting a Band-Aid on crime,” said Michael Shields, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, in January.

The FOP purchased billboard space on the Kennedy, Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressways, and ad space with the CTA to bring attention to its demand for more officers.

Papachristos said that despite Chicago’s need for more cops, a good policing strategy can still reduce crime.

“Smart policing is better than more policing,” Papachristos said. “It’s not about how many people you have on the street, but having the right people on the street – one good cop is better than three average cops.”

Franklin E. Zimring, a criminal justice expert at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an article earlier this year that New York increased the size of its police force in the 1990s, but it is unclear whether the extra officers had a significant effect on crime.

“After 2000 the NYPD actually cut its force by more than 4,000 uniformed officers, and yet reported crime kept dropping and doing so faster than in other large cities,” Zimring said.

Papachristos did warn, however, that at a certain tipping point even the most capable police officers can’t turn the tide against crime.

“We can do more with less, but you want to keep as much manpower as you can,” Papachristos said. “There is a threshold when a lack of manpower will begin to affect public safety.”

According to FBI and Department of Defense data, 5,056 people have been murdered in Chicago since 2001, compared with 1,976 total U.S. deaths in Afghanistan since 2001. Chicago’s murder rate even outpaces total NATO coalition fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001 by a difference of more than 2,500 killed.

Zimring, a former University of Chicago law school professor, said that what New York did in the 1990s to reduce crime was not extremely expensive and can be adapted to cities like Chicago.

Papachristos said that despite the sobering comparison with casualties in Afghanistan and this year’s soar in murders, Chicago is on the right path.

“There is mounting evidence that place-based policing is effective,” Papachristos said. “Chicago in a lot of ways is a leader in this new era of policing, a lot of cities look to Chicago as an example.”