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Homicide Totals at Historic Lows, But Totals and Surges in Violent Crime in Some Neighborhoods Still a Concern

By Scott Sutton and Mike Reilley
@RedLineProject

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy had to defend the department's methods of counting violent crimes, particularly homicides, during a City Council committee hearing last week.

Questions about the police department's tracking methods came after a series of stories in Chicago Magazine stirred interest of the city's top watchdog and aldermen.

The Chicago Magazine article alleged that the department under-reported the number of homicides in 2013 by incorrectly classifying them. A 24-page audit in April from the city’s Inspector General’s Office showed the department under-reported aggravated batteries and assaults by about one-fourth in 2012.

Chicago had 435 reported homicides last year, compared to 506 in 2012. That's a far cry from nearly a quarter of a century ago, when the city had 943 homicides in 1992 alone. The city's homicide rate has decreased steadily since the mid-1990s.

The early '90s stand out when studying annual homicide totals in the last 25 years. Chicago's public housing highrise buildings and high levels of gang and drug activity contributed to those figures, many experts say.

But a closer examination of Chicago's violent crime data, a much broader category, does show that things have improved -- somewhat.

A Yale study of the last half-century of Chicago crime data revealed that Chicago's violent crime rate is near the middle of the pack of cities with more than 250,000 population. Chicago's violent crime rate is nearly half that of cities like Detroit, Oakland, and St. Louis, the study showed.

The study also showed that while violent crime rates improved in some neighborhoods, they remained high or increased in other areas. Most were on the South and West Sides.

"More important, the difference in crime rates between the city's lowest-crime communities and its highest-crime communities are rather dramatic," wrote Yale associate professor Andrew Papachristos, in a recent Crain's Chicago Business story.

Papachristos, who conducted the study, referred to homicide rates per capita (per 100,000 residents) as an example.

"The average annual homicide rate between 2000 and 2010 in Jefferson Park, on the city's Northwest Side, was 3.1 per 100,000 residents," he wrote. "In stark contrast, West Garfield Park on the West Side, had a rate of 64 per 100,000. Inequalities such as these remind us that even though the city as a whole has come far over the past decades, a significant and palpable crime gap remains."

2012 was a particularly bad year, at least in recent history. The 506 homicides that year were the most of any city in the nation and came at a time when incidents such as the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings drew national attention to gun violence. Still, the city's per-capita homicide rate was well below many other major metropolitan areas that year.

During last week's hearing, McCarthy blamed the 24-7 news cycle for creating a perception that the city's homicide rates are bad when they are actually at historic lows. Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) disagreed with McCarthy.

“People out there in the city are living reality and they don’t like to hear people say that their perception is wrong,” Waguespack told McCarthy at the hearing.

Peter Nickeas, who covers overnight crime for the Chicago Tribune, also took issue with McCarthy's comments. Nickeas regularly breaks overnight crime news on Twitter and writes about some of the city's most violent neighborhood crimes.

"The problem isn't that we are reporting violence," Nickeas said in an interview with The Red Line Project. "The problem is that that violence is happening."

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