Behind Chicago's high-crime summer: persistent street gang violence
One legacy of public housing cuts is the spread of street gang turf battles to new pockets of the city. Gang violence contributed to a high-crime summer.
With three police officers killed in separate instances in two months, and calls from some Illinois lawmakers for the National Guard to patrol its most violent streets, Chicago once again finds itself under growing pressure to rein in crime.Skip to next paragraph
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Although this year hasn't been Chicago's worst, the police murders have brought new attention to the city's stubbornly high homicide rate, which experts say is the result of a chronic gang problem and budget cutbacks that have reduced the number of officers patrolling tough neighborhoods.
As of Aug. 12, the homicide count was 273, more than half last year's total of 458. While that number is down significantly from the years when Chicago's homicide numbers exceeded 900, it still far outpaces murder rates in other big American cities. Los Angeles, a larger city than Chicago by a million residents, reported 313 homicides last year, according to the FBI.
Chicagoans were alarmed this summer after a series of murders, including the death of an 8-year-old girl who was shot by a stray bullet while skipping rope, an unintended victim in a heated gang war. In July, a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll found that half of those surveyed felt that violence here was getting worse.
"Mayor [Richard M.] Daley needs to send the National Guard over here," says Erika Bernadin, a mother of six who lives in Roseland, a far South Side neighborhood with the highest number of gun deaths this summer. "There ain't nothing to do here but listen to the sad stuff on the news."
Mayor Daley is trying to get more officers on the streets. To make up for a 15 percent drop in police from 2008, he is seeking federal grant money to increase hires.
Last year he started moving officers on desk duty to street patrol, a tactic that was criticized in July when one of those officers, an 11-year training instructor at the police academy, was killed with his own gun after a man wrestled it away from him.
"There's no question that both the patrolling strength and the strategies in police departments make a difference in reducing crime," says Harold Pollack, a codirector of the Chicago Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. What's more, he says, federal, state, and local budget problems are creating "serious challenges" to making streets safe.
"We're missing a big policy opportunity to help, not only with increasing the size of the police, but with doing other violence-intervention efforts like youth employment," says Mr. Pollack.
Chicago's gang problem is greater than that in either New York City or Los Angeles, according to Philip Cook, who studies violence at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy in Durham, N.C. Chicago Police Department statistics show that 81 percent of homicides in the first seven months of this year were gang-related, which Mr. Cook says confirms his research that despite policing efforts, gun access is flourishing among Chicago's gangs.