Chicago homicides spike in January: Echoes of city's past struggles with violence?

Chicago saw its bloodiest January in 16 years last month, continuing an uptick in violent crime from last year that is now playing out amidst a deepening mistrust between public and the police.

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/AP
Chicago police investigate the scene where multiple people were shot on the city’s South Side., Jan. 19. Chicago police said Monday, the number of homicides in the city climbed dramatically in January to 51, in the bloodiest start to a year in at least 16 years. They said there were 22 more homicides this January than in January 2015 and that the number of shooting incidents during the same period more than doubled to 242.

Chicago saw its bloodiest January since the turn of the century, new statistics show, fueling concerns that the city’s persistently high violent crime rate could hamper efforts to repair trust between the city’s crime-ridden neighborhoods and the controversy-riddled police department tasked with protecting them.

According to statistics released Monday, homicides and shootings reached their highest levels in January in 16 years. Furthermore, the number of shooting incidents and total shooting victims more than doubled last month compared to January 2015. 

The crime spike followed a turbulent year end for the Chicago Police Department. In late November the release of a video from October 2014 showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black male armed with a knife, 16 times in 13 seconds sparked a public outcry. Mr. Van Dyke has been charged with murder in the incident, and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired.

Violent crime peaked in Chicago in 2012 when homicides exceeded 500, the most for any city in the country that year. The department spent millions of dollars over the following years on police overtime and other crime-fighting measures, and the number of homicides dropped closer to 400 the next two years. In 2015, however, it jumped back up again.

For some, this new spike is linked to a heightened scrutiny of police use-of-force since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Law enforcement officials as senior as FBI Director James Comey have said the scrutiny has caused some beat cops to be less aggressive on the streets, emboldening criminals and leading to crime spikes, a chain reaction known as the Ferguson effect.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last fall he believed some officers had gone "fetal" out of fear that close scrutiny of their actions, justified or not, would land them in trouble. A department audit released last month showed that officers have been deliberately damaging dashboard cameras in many of the patrol cars.

Others say that officer attitude is but one of many factors contributing to the turmoil in Chicago. The Christian Science Monitor correspondent Nissa Rhee reported in October that these other factors include the splintering of gangs, a proliferation of illegal guns, the destruction of low-income housing projects, and a poor local economy.

Experts also point out that, while violent crime may be spiking in Chicago at the moment, the numbers are still far below historical levels. There were 934 homicides in the city in 1992, and a Chicago Tribune report at the time attributed the violence to some familiar factors.

"Thomas Regulus, a professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago, said the key factor in those different [homicide] rates [across the city] is economic," the paper reported. "Police [also] point to the increasing availability and sophistication of weaponry as one reason for the record homicide rate."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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