Cautious optimism as Chicago sees statistical decline in gun violence, even as downtown takes spotlight for crime in the first half of 2022

Cautious optimism as Chicago sees statistical decline in gun violence, even as downtown takes spotlight for crime in the first half of 2022
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Chicago enters the July Fourth weekend with some encouraging news: The unrelenting gun violence that the city has experienced over the previous two years continues to decline, with a double-digit decline in homicides, officials reported Friday.

With a number of factors in play, including that the city is rebounding from a deadly pandemic that coincided with increased violence, it would be hard to pinpoint just what is driving the reductions, or even celebrate them just yet, especially with most of the summer ahead, experts said.

The news is also tempered by the fact that gun violence here remains historically and unacceptably high, as evidenced by two shootings early Friday: The wounding of a Chicago police officer just hours after an overnight shooting outside a downtown business that wounded three people and left two dead.

Although gun violence across Chicago declined in the past six months, issues downtown, a place where people from all over the city gather, have been higher than usual this year, leaving many in Chicago on edge. That dynamic was punctuated by the killing of a teen in Millennium Park earlier this year.

At a news conference Friday afternoon to announce safety measures in advance of the holiday weekend, Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged the tension between the real declines and the perceptions of safety in the city.

“We are making progress on both homicides and shootings,” Lightfoot said. “Nobody is taking their foot off the gas. There is a lot more work that we need to do to build the confidence in the public that our city is safe. But it is also important to mark the milestone of progress.”

Meanwhile experts also urged caution about the numbers, saying critical months remain.

“It’s too soon to tell. We are just creeping into the summer. It’s always June, July, August that adds the biggest count to the total.” said Northwestern professor Wesley Skogan, of the Institute for Policy Research, who added at least one note of hope.

“The really bad years are the ones that start off badly,” Skogan said, nodding to the declines in the statistics.

Numbers show a decrease

Through June 26 there had been 304 homicides in Chicago, approximately a 10% decrease from the 336 recorded during the same time frame last year.

There were 1,220 shootings incidents in the first half of the year, a decline of 17% from last year, according to Chicago Police Department statistics.

The overall drop comes after a significant two-year spike in gun violence, including a 60% increase in homicides during 2020 and 2021, a time when the pandemic struck and the country faced a national reckoning over police abuse in America that included sustained criticism of especially big-city departments.

The six-month numbers also show a roughly 25% increase in robbery victimizations, according to city of Chicago data portal. And carjackings, a crime that has received widespread attention, remain higher this year, with a 7% increase, according to the portal.

The gun violence also is trending down in some of the city’s less-safe neighborhoods. But the figures remain elevated in unexpected places, including downtown, which presented a challenge for the department at the start of summer.

Officers were forced to contain large groups of teenagers who gathered in the center of the city and caused unrest but also violence, including the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old Seandell Holliday near The Bean in May. A city curfew was enacted for Millennium Park, forbidding unaccompanied minors from being there after 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

But despite the perception reinforced by high-profile incidents, the number of shootings downtown is well below levels of violence that continue to occur in historically less-safe communities, where the continued use of firearms in street conflicts is the overriding factor.

Last weekend, 5-month Cecilia Thomasbecame the city’s youngest victim killed by gunfire in years when she was struck by a bullet while riding in the back seat of her family’s vehicle as it traveled on the 7700 block of South South Shore Drive.

The need to both secure downtown and protect neighborhoods presents a massive task for the city, which Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown addressed at the Friday news conference.

“We’ve ensured we have enough officers where we need them most,” Brown pledged, though he declined to provide any specific numbers regarding police presence over the holiday weekend.

Brown acknowledged that long weekends, such as the July Fourth holiday, are difficult for CPD, and are one of the periods when leadership cancels days off.

Only a first step

For sure, signs that homicides and gun-involved injuries could be reversing is meaningful and important. But Skogan and other experts noted that making gains against the two-year spike is only a first step.

For one, the homicide and shooting numbers are still up when compared to 2019, before the pandemic and the unrest of 2020. And even if the city does return to pre-pandemic levels, the challenge will be to achieve even greater declines.

Five to six years ago, the city had much lower gun crime numbers, compared with previous years, said Roseanna Ander, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. But the figures were still significantly higher than Los Angeles and New York City, and the impact of all of it was being felt most in the same places it always has been — in Chicago’s Black and Latino communities that have been starved of resources for decades.

“Even the 2015 levels were unconscionably high, particularly in a country with the kind of resources this country has,” Ander said. “We were, even in 2015, a tale of two cities. Depending on what neighborhood you lived in, your exposure to violence and sense of safety and security varied greatly.”

More boots on the ground

The challenges ahead in 2022 for Chicago are significant — and the summer months will certainly determine if the short-term gains hold.

Some noted that Chicago Public Schools closed just two weeks ago, which means there are more youth in need of programming now, at a time that agencies are facing staffing shortages. The Chicago Park District announced Tuesday that fewer than half its pools would open Tuesday, amid a lifeguard shortage that had already delayed public pool openings.

And Chicago police are facing significant personnel shortages, putting a strain on officers who are facing long work weeks.

But this summer also marks a new, and significant, commitment by the city to support a more diverse and community-driven strategy for public safety.

The Community Safety Coordination Center is operating for the first summer season. The center aims to harness resources from all city offices — from sanitation to Park District — to combat violence. It is also trying to fast-track support and money to a strength Chicago always had, namely local organizations and neighbors trying to address the violence in their own corner of the city.

Meanwhile, street outreach efforts to those most at-risk of violence are now coordinated citywide across dozens of groups, bringing immediate interventions on street conflicts and victim services.

“There is a lot of strategy this summer including more boots on the grounds with outreach and more summer programs,” Skogan said.

In the Back of Yards neighborhood Thursday, Oscar Contreras, who has been doing outreach on violence for more than 20 years, was working two phones in his office as he tried to coordinate three events for the community.

Contreras, a program manager for the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, said he believes the pressure has eased a little, and people are slowly feeling more safe.

He sees more coordination too. A recent spate of shootings in the Back of the Yards was immediately addressed, he said, with cooperation from a few groups.

But Contreras cautioned this type of work is not easy or fast, and that the commitments this summer need to hold. And when there are shootings downtown, there is a different kind of pressure from people who want quick answers, he said.

“People don’t understand this doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

At the news conference, Lightfoot stuck to often repeated themes, highlighting the coordination of city agencies and criticizing the amount of illegal guns on the street. Then she also made a call for peace on a holiday that celebrates freedoms that “are not available to people throughout the world.”

“It’s important for us to highlight those moments of joy,” Lightfoot said. “But we have a responsibility and an opportunity in this democracy to not forget that we are each others’ neighbors, and that we’ve got to find common ground to be able to move forward.”

Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt contributed.