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Chicago Homicides Surge During Global Pandemic

By Nicole Sroka |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Monday, Dec. 14, 2020

Homicide rates continue to rise in Chicago amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, surpassing last year’s recorded number of homicides by 207 with roughly a month left until the new year.

As of Nov. 29, Chicago has had 711 reported homicides, with most concentrated on the city’s West and South sides. 

Chicago had seen a steady decline in reported homicides from 2010 to 2015, averaging about 542 per year. The city had 788 in 2016, the highest recorded since 1992, when there were 942 homicides. The city's homicide rate decreased after 2016 with annual totals falling below 700 until this year. 

An analysis of data from the City of Chicago Data Portal and the US Census, Chicago's 2019 homicide rate per 100,000 people was roughly 18.7%, a 3.4% decrease from 2018 and a 6.1% decrease from 2017. Based on population and homicide data from 2017 and 2019, it appeared that the overall homicide rate for the city was decreasing, though, more current data prove otherwise.

Neighborhoods on the Northwest Side, such as Belmont Cragin, have seen a 25% increase in the number of homicides compared to the total number of homicides in the community area in 2019.

Jenniffer Navarro, a 21-year-old nursing student, has lived on the Northwest Side all of her life. She lives in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

Recalling her childhood, Navarro mentioned that levels of violence in the area have dramatically increased particularly due to gun-related crimes. 

“You know it’s a bad thing [gun violence] but you kind of feel hopeless, because you don’t know what to do about it because, like, what can you do about it? It’s like nobody else is taking the stance” Navarro said.

It was not until her teenage years that she became aware that levels of violence were increasing in her community, citing a 2015 incident where one of her classmates was shot and killed outside of his home.

“I saw him right before he got killed,” she said. “That’s when I realized how bad it was getting over here [Belmont Cragin].”

Toward the end of 2019, Navarro lost one of her close friends -- a victim of a drive-by shooting in Belmont Central near Hanson Park.

The victim was in his car roughly a block away from his home where he was shot multiple times, eventually crashing into three cars before he was taken to the hospital. 

Navarro said that despite the plea of the victim’s family to have a detailed police investigation, the offender still has not been found.

Referencing practices of policing, Navarro stressed the importance of clearing homicides in order for justice to be served to the victim and their family.

“I think the stigma of ‘just another homicide’ should be erased,” she said. “I am sure that there is a sense of desensitization that police undergo because they are so used to dealing with homicides all over Chicago.”

Dr. Charles Wellford, chair and professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park, and James Cronin, a research associate at the university, said that “clearance rates”, in criminal terminology,  refer to the proportion of crimes in a jurisdiction at which police report an arrest.

In a report published by the Chicago Police Department, Chicago had one of the lowest homicide clearance rates in the nation compared to other populous cities in 2017.

Of the cities mentioned –– New York, Los Angeles and Chicago –– New York had the highest homicide clearance rate in 2017 with 85% of homicides cleared, followed by Los Angeles with 73% and Chicago with 36%.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that CPD's homicide clearance rate was 53% in 2019, a significant increase from 2017.

Dr. William McCarty, an associate professor of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that clearance rates are considered to be a successful homicide investigation metric where the individual police department has compiled enough evidence to find an individual for prosecution. 

A factor that coincides with the low clearance rate in the city, as hypothesized by McCarty, lies with tension among police officers and community members.

“I am highly, highly confident that when you have these disruptions in police community relations, there's a theory of procedural justice, which basically advocates that when people feel that police have less legitimacy, they're more likely to not call or not engage with the police” he said.

Distrust in police can be linked to poor experiences individuals have had with community policing.

Moe Ahmad, a 21-year-old law intern and student of criminology, grew up exposed to violence within his communities, altering his time between the Austin and Belmont Cragin neighborhoods.

Waking up at 3 a.m. to the sounds of gunshots, sirens and people shouting is not foreign to Ahmad, as he mentioned feeling desensitized whenever confronted with noises related to gun violence.

Within the last four years Ahmad lost five people he knew to gun violence. This past summer he lost one of his best friends to gun-induced wounds.

Recalling the moment where his friend was shot in an alley outside his home, Ahmad noted he saw an officer in a patrol car roughly five minutes before the rounds went off, though, when the shooting occurred it took a while before officers came on the scene.

“He [the police officer] was patrolling five minutes before that, five minutes before the shooting” he said. “How far can you get in five minutes? You’re telling me that you didn’t hear those gunshots?”

Similar to Navarro, Ahmad mentioned that the police have never found the offender.

Strained relations between community members and the police can result in lower homicide clearance rates, as witnesses and people who have information regarding homicides can be less likely to offer their testimony.


Dashboard: Illinois firearm recovery data


McCarty said that the proliferation of guns makes it more difficult to solve homicide cases, as guns can separate individuals by a distance compared to weapons like knives which can produce more evidence.

“I would argue that a lot of it [low clearance rates] is more of the distrust between police and community that leads those investigations to be more difficult” he said. “The proliferation of guns, I would say, makes those cases harder to investigate.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice –– the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives –– showed that in 2017, some of the main source states for Illinois firearms are border states: Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kentucky.

The report listed Chicago as the top firearm recovery city in Illinois, followed by Rockford, with pistols being the most frequently recovered firearm. 

In April, former Chicago Police Superintendent Charlie Beck stressed that the city has fallen victim to two pandemics: COVID-19 and gun violence.

“There are two pandemics in Chicago, and only one is virus induced,” Beck said during an April 8 press conference with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The unforeseen pandemic can potentially be linked to the increase in overall reported homicides. Since March, individuals have been confined to their homes due to the implementation of stay-at-home orders as well as the elimination of indoor and outdoor dining.

It is likely that the homicide rate can be related to domestic abuse situations and conflicts that result between individuals who have had disputes within a singular, shared space.

“I think that spike in violence, that corresponded with the pandemic, due to more interpersonal tensions, you know, between intimate partners, right? There's intimate partner murders and homicides, too.” McCarty said.

Experts say that to effectively combat the issue of gun violence related homicides, it is essential to investigate the larger issues of the lack of justice served the families of homicide victims due to low, overall levels of clearance and gun legislation.

McCarty stressed the reality of gun control legislation in neighboring states which contributes to gun related homicides and ongoing violence within the city, as well as measures individuals are taking to trace the spread of weapons across state lines.

“A lot of criminal intelligence analysts use it to try to understand how people are connected in these groups and organizations and the likely people who either can be the next victim or the next shooter,” McCarty said.

This process, coined a social network analysis, refers to individuals analyzing and tracing the spread of weapons based on who individuals associate themselves with.

“Talking about the flow of guns into the city, which is a big problem, an issue that comes from states that have more lax laws,” he said “There's a real pipeline of weapons that just flow into the city.” 


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