Things that are true about crime in Chicago

I can’t find the tweet, but the other day Chris Hayes (backed up by @prisonculture) was talking about how several facts that are often presented as contradictory are, in fact, simultaneously true. Here’s a partial list:

1. Crime is too high. This is the point from which discussions should begin, both to acknowledge that these conversations are, in fact, about the really intense suffering of human beings, and also to preemptively tether any further points to the very serious and sad reality they’re trying to describe.

2. Crime has fallen dramatically, both in the city as a whole and in the vast majority, if not all, neighborhoods. I’ve written about this; Andrew Papachristos, who has better credentials than me, has written about it.

3. Crime statistics in Chicago, as in many other cities, are manipulated. The two-part Chicago Magazine piece that came out a bit ago is the best place for details on the Chicago version, though if you’ve seen The Wire, you basically know the story. Note, though, that even the authors of the Chicago piece acknowledge that what they’ve uncovered doesn’t mean crime hasn’t been falling, even over the three-year period they investigated.

4. Chicago is nowhere near the “murder capital” of the United States, nor is it anywhere near as dangerous as wartime Iraq or Afghanistan. The media, by and large, has simply failed to do its job on this front, repeatedly claiming or strongly implying that Chicago is the most dangerous city in the country. It’s not even remotely true.

5. Chicago’s “murder inequality” has gotten worse, and may be worse than other cities’. I’ve written about this before.

You rarely see any one person make – or even acknowledge as true, despite what I would consider overwhelming evidence – all of these points at the same time. I suspect that’s because for reasons both general (police departments don’t like to admit to their own funny business; neighborhoods suffering from crime are loathe to be told things are getting better) and specific to Chicago (extreme, and mostly earned, distrust of the police; distrust of Mayor Emanuel; a strong national narrative about Chicago’s crime rates going back to the 1920s), conversations about crime tend to break down into “sides.” On one side – blatantly generalizing – are city officials and their supporters, who would like to emphasize that things are getting better, while acknowledging more quietly that things are still pretty bad. On the other are people who believe that city officials aren’t doing everything they could to prevent crime, and emphasize the extent to which the status quo is traumatic and unacceptable.

There are, of course, lots and lots of people who don’t fit easily into either of these camps. But to the extent you do, you’re likely to resist acknowledging some of the facts above, because you don’t think they help your side. If you’re Rahm Emanuel or with the CPD, you don’t necessarily want to talk a lot about the extent to which crime is a disaster in huge parts of the city, or the extent to which crime is suffered unequally – other than when you have to, for example after the Fourth of July weekend, at which point you’ll pound a lectern and then try to move on. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to press the case that Emanuel hasn’t done enough about crime, you might think that someone who talks about the fall in crime – or the fact that Chicago isn’t actually the most dangerous city in the country – is making excuses for policies that are costing people’s lives.

Since Rahm Emanuel and Garry McCarthy don’t make a habit of responding to this blog, I mostly get pushback from the latter group. When I write about Chicago’s fall in crime, or about the extent to which people exaggerate Chicago’s crime relative to other cities, I often hear from people who aren’t just incredulous about whether I’m telling the truth; they accuse me of actively wanting to sweep the problem under the rug. Given that I’ve written about how serious Chicago’s crime problem is on this blog and in national outlets, that seems a bit weird; but it’s true that if you see every conversation about crime as a debate between two “sides,” these facts don’t necessarily help theirs.

That said, they’re really important. Partly that’s just because they’re the truth, and promoting a culture that says it’s offensive to talk about facts that might not mesh with a given political program or narrative is a really terrible idea for all sorts of reasons. But it’s also because in the larger picture, the widely-believed falsehoods about Chicago crime – that it’s getting worse, and that it’s exceptionally bad in an American context – are actually devastating for the very neighborhoods that their deniers are dedicated to serving.

Fleck’s Coffee on 79th in Chatham. One of many really pleasant corners of the South Side that more people might know about if they weren’t so terrified. Credit: Strannik45, Flickr

As Robert Sampson wrote in Great American City, neighborhood reputation has an enormous impact – larger, in many cases, than the actual crime and poverty that reputation is supposed to reflect – on a community’s future trajectory: whether people will move in or leave; whether people will spend their money at local businesses; whether, in other words, the neighborhood thrives or suffers. Misinformation about crime is certainly not the only contributor to the negative reputation of Chicago’s black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides (and, to a lesser extent, Latino neighborhoods there) – there’s the heavy baggage of racism, among whose many tentacles (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) an eagerness to believe in mythological quantities of violent crime is only one.

But myths about crime is one of them, and it is hard to read the coverage – and listen to how people talk about it – and read Sampson’s research, and conclude that it doesn’t have an effect.


4 thoughts on “Things that are true about crime in Chicago

  1. I know nothing about Chicago, other than I want to visit there. I live near New Orleans. This is a city that has to have tourism to survive. And they are struggling to keep the criminals away from the tourists. It is a very complex issue. I believe that most crime in our big cities starts with education and our public schools. I also believe we have to give kids in those schools a middle class worthy of their efforts. I suspect Chicago has put plenty of people in jail, just like down here. The problem has to be addressed before that. Just my two cents. Great post.

    1. Thanks. Overuse of jail is definitely a major issue. I don’t know much about New Orleans and crime, other than that there’s a lot of it; I’d be very interested in reading more.

  2. Agree with 1,3,4,&5. Re: #2 – Crime is down? Relative to when?
    Historical murders:
    Obviously much better than the ’70s – ’90s (white flight, peak suburbia era). Drop from ~600 to mid-400s in 2003/4.
    Pretty much flat for the last 10 years.
    Note that historically there are ~5 shootings per homicide:

    For your example, Fleck’s, according to that shooting map from the tribune above, so far in 2014 there have been 8 shootings on 79th between MLK Drive and Cottage Grove. (Granted many of those are probably at night, and it does look safer than many parts of the south and west sides). More importantly, anyone using transit would have to traverse from the central loop through a number of very dangerous neighborhoods.

    Also think local. Away from murders, looking at robberies, in the highly visible (to North-siders and the media) Wrigleyville community, robberies are at a(n at least) 10 year high and up 25-33% vs 2003-2010 levels.
    Much of that has been attributed to a re-allocation of resources (fewer cops in Wrigleyville) to promote a “surge” in “more dangerous” neighborhoods to fight the shooting/murder/Chicago image problem, combined with the city’s financial straits that preclude it from actually hiring an appropriate number of officers:

    The shooting map would imply that areas ripe for (perhaps further) gentrification include the (1) Near West Side/Medical District/University Village (2) the area from South loop to 35th street (Chinatown/Douglas/Armour Square/North Bridgeport). On the north-side, it’s immediately obvious why Uptown has been on developers’ wish list for gentrification/crime improvement for years (it would also unlock Edgewater further). Elsewhere, watching the development going on in the former Cabrini Green neighborhood is eye-catching. Also you can see the growing pains along the blue line, with more established neighborhoods like Bucktown/Wicker Park looking favorable to currently gentrifying Logan Square, which itself is already safer than Humboldt Park (where gentrification is pushing some long-term Logan Square residents).

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      The area around 79th doesn’t have a huge number more shootings than parts of Logan Square that the yuppie/hipster set go to all the time, and if you walk around there during the day it feels very comfortable. And getting down there via the Red Line isn’t any more dangerous during the day than taking the L anywhere else in the city, I promise.

      It may be the case that robberies in certain parts of the city are up. That’s fair, but it’s also not what most Chicago crime coverage is about.

      I don’t really know what the map says about potential gentrification. I don’t think I’ve seen any research about whether crime falls following gentrification, or if gentrification is directed to lower-crime areas. In the case of schools, it’s actually the former: neighborhood public schools only get better *after* the middle class has moved in, despite the conventional wisdom that says it’s the other way around. It would make sense that crime has some deterrent effect, but I don’t know how big it is. East Garfield Park, for example, is beginning to gentrify even though it has historically had one of the higher violent crime rates in the city.

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