Chicago murders drop in 2013. Good police work, or something else?

Chicago police credit new techniques targeting gangs and violence-prone neighborhoods with the sharp drop in homicides, but analysts say changes in gang disputes may be a big factor.

The announcement from famously crime-ridden Chicago that violent crime in general, and homicides in particular, fell dramatically in 2013 compared with the year before quickly produced claims of credit from the Police Department.

But some analysts are suggesting the drop – homicides fell 18 percent from 503 in 2012 to 415 in 2013, while shootings plummeted by 24 percent – can be attributed to other factors, including some that are internal to the gangs responsible for the bulk of the city’s violence.

“More intelligent policing prevents murder,” Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told reporters this week, saying the drop is attributed to a number of restructured policing techniques. They include launching a “gang audit” to focus on individual gang members and turf conflicts that may become factors in future violence, and concentrating efforts in more than 20 “impact zones” on the city’s South and West sides, where crime is more rampant.

But according to Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in Chicago, the dramatic surge in homicides in 2012 made it an unreliable benchmark for determining if the lowered number of homicides the following year was the result of a specific change in policing strategy. In fact, when compared with the 2011 total of 435, homicides in 2013 were only 5 percent lower.

“The unusual spike in 2012 was attributable to a confluence of factors that came together that we are not likely to see in subsequent years,” Professor Lurigio says. They include: An unusually warm winter and spring, and an “unprecedented gang fragmentation” that increased tensions in the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Since then, Lurigio says, gang structures have tightened so that there is more control of the streets.

“There was more of a resolution this past year in that they were able to mark off space and maybe negotiate around their differences,” he says. Nevertheless, he adds, the proactive police presence also helped establish more stability in high-tension neighborhoods.

Putting Chicago’s trends in an even broader historical perspective, a report published by Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies in December said that, despite the 2012 jump, homicides in Chicago are at a historic low when compared with data going back as far as 1965.

The report notes also that the greatest proportion of homicides in Chicago involves street gangs, and in particularly, factions operating within the same gang organization.

“The nature of gang homicides in Chicago has changed from one between warring distinct gangs to one between related or affiliated gangs,” it says.

Meanwhile, even as the Police Department claims credit for the declining levels of murder and other violence, its allocation of resources is being questioned.

In 2013, Chicago spent nearly $100 million in overtime pay for police, triple the $32 million budgeted by the city for the year and almost double what it spent on police overtime in 2012. The city is budgeting $70 million for police overtime in 2014.

The police union has long complained that relying on overtime drains resources, and is not a reliable strategy for fighting crime. The union argues for more hiring, saying the city is compensating for its diminished police ranks by moving rookie cops, who have little experience, to “impact zones” where crime is rampant.

“From a budgetary standpoint, it’s not sustainable,” agrees Loyola’s Lurigio. “It’s also not sustainable for a long-term police strategy. If you want people close to the ground, you don’t want cops driving around in cars, you also want cops who can get a firm grasp of what’s gong on, and who are going to be known to the people in the neighborhood.

“If you have ears to the ground regularly,” he continues, “you’re going to listen in a different way, you’re going to be more informed about the intelligence you’re going to gather. You want a more sustained presence.”

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