One month into the new year Chicago has already set an ignominious record for homicides.
By late Tuesday, the Chicago Police Department had logged 42 such killings, making this the second consecutive January to top 40 homicides and the most violent first month of the year since 2002. By sheer happenstance, the 42nd victim was a teenage girl who had performed with her high school band at President Obama's inauguration earlier this month.
The January report does not bode well for turning the corner from last year, when homicides totaled 513 – the highest since 2008. Last summer, as the body count rose – primarily in marginalized swaths of Chicago where joblessness and poverty seem entrenched – Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy stood together to blame the epidemic of shootings on squabbles between multiplying gang factions and a proliferation of illegal guns.
Measures they have introduced to address the surge in homicides include partnering with CeaseFire, the nonprofit group that mediates street conflicts, and demolishing more than 200 vacant buildings that the city considers to be breeding grounds for crime. The police are also refocusing efforts from general sweeps of certain gangs and areas to hotspots or individuals deemed key to the shootings. Central to that strategy is an effort to determine when retaliation to a shooting may happen happen and who might be involved.
More recently, city officials are working on initiatives to address guns. Already, gun shops are banned within city limits, and Chicago has in place byzantine restrictions on handgun ownership to try to prevent illegal sales and transport of guns. But officials here say weaker laws in surrounding suburbs and neighboring states mean that criminals can buy guns fairly easily and bring them back to Chicago.
The January report is “disappointing," Superintendent McCarthy told reporters Tuesday. But "you don’t throw out everything you’re doing because you had a couple of bad days. And unfortunately today’s a bad day, too.”
Mayor Emanuel on Wednesday said he has asked chief executives of the mutual funds Vanguard, BlackRock, and Allianz to divest their companies' portfolios of gun manufacturers Freedom Group, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. because they are lobbying against federal and state proposals to ban assault-style weapons. The action follows similar pleas by Emanuel this month to Bank of America and TD Bank. The mayor also said Chicago and its sister agencies, such as the transit authority and park district, are shedding investments with five pension and retirement funds that invest in the three gun manufacturers.
Residents of neighborhoods where homicides are highest say those endeavors are laudable, but are not enough to stop the killing. The police, they say, have not been able to prevent what are mostly teenage boys and young men from shooting guns. The city, they add, needs to invest in its poorest neighborhoods to address what they describe as a culture of dysfunction and depression.
“A lot of these crimes are based on children reacting because they have nothing," says Juandalyn Holland, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, an organization that offers mentoring programs and technology training for children and young adults. "When there’s not as many social programs, there’s not as many after-school programs, and their parents are not working, you breed contempt. And when you do that, you get the result that is happening.”
Ms. Holland says most organizations like hers are receiving diminished federal, state, and local funding and fewer donations, as a result of cutbacks stemming from the recent recession. In each of the past five years, she says, her funding has been cut 20 percent.
“We don’t want to see these things happening in our community, but if we feel powerless against the system, how do we change it?” she asks.
Chicago's homicide crisis is more a matter of public health than of criminality, says Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in Chicago.
“The community’s sense of efficacy and safety is diminished every time someone is murdered in its neighborhoods," he says. "We need to recognize [that] if we don’t address the roots causes of violence in the community, police efforts, however well intended, however sophisticated, however aggressive, will not affect the homicide rate.”
The teachers union and others criticize Emanuel for his push to privatization via charter schools, which they say will shutter schools in the more marginalized areas that need them most. In December, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Emanuel administration is considering closing or consolidating 95 schools, most on the West and South sides of the city, where violence is rampant.
And the police union says Emanuel's call to fund 500 new police officers in 2013 is insufficient to replace the large numbers of police personnel who are retiring.
But Mr. Lurigio insists that more police won't solve the homicide problem. The neighborhoods where rates of crime and homicides are highest are also the neighborhoods with the highest rates of unemployment, school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, HIV/AIDs infections, and other public-health problems, he says. “You can’t view the homicide problem as a Chicago problem. It’s a problem that’s been endemic to certain areas of the city that are impoverished.”
Chicago's 42nd homicide victim, teenager Hadiya Pendleton, is from the Kenwood neighborhood, where Mr. Obama still owns a home. Hadiya was shot randomly while seeking shelter under a building canopy during a rain shower. Chicago police say she was not affiliated with any gang and was not likely the intended target of the fired bullets.