Friday, November 16, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: In Chicago, murder ‘just a few handshakes away’

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
November 16, 2012

A series of deadly shootings in Chicago over the last weekend in October pushed the city’s homicide total to 435, two more than all of last year. This year’s totals will outpace not only 2011, but 2009 and 2010 as well.

Although 2012 promises to be significantly more deadly than recent years, it pales in comparison to 1991, when there were 928 homicides.

The news goes from bad to worse for Chicago. The police are doing a very poor job of solving murders. The clearance rate for last year's 433 homicides in Chicago was just 30 percent. In other words, 7 out of 10 murderers in Chicago get away with the crime.

Twenty years ago, the clearance rate in Chicago was near 70 percent. Even though there were more than twice as many murders, fewer overall cases went unsolved. The union representing Chicago police officers says one factor in the low clearance rate is that, today, there are fewer detectives.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has turned to an unusual ally to find a solution to the city’s growing homicide problem.

Andrew Papachristos teaches sociology at Yale University but returned to his hometown of Chicago, to research what McCarthy hopes can help pinpoint those most likely to become shooters. The plan calls for aggressive surveillance and arrest, if warranted, of “hot people.”

Papachristos looked at murders that occurred between 2005 and 2010 in West Garfield Park and North Lawndale, two low-income West Side Chicago neighborhoods. Over that period, Papachristos found that 191 people in those neighborhoods were killed.

Citywide, Chicago’s murder rate is 14.5 per 100,000. But it jumps to 44.5 per 100,000 in those West Side neighborhoods. For the “hot people” on the West Side, the murder rate jumps to 1,865 per 100,000.

Murder occasionally is random, but, more often, Papachristos found, the victims have links either directly to their killers or to others who are linked to the killers. Seventy percent of the killings he studied occurred within what Papachristos determined was a social network of only about 1,600 people -- out of a population in those neighborhoods of about 80,000.

Each “hot person” in that network of 1,600 people had been arrested at some point with at least one other person in the same network.

“They were stopped with a murder victim, or arrested with a murder victim -- or victims --in the past two years,” said Joseph Salemme, commander of Chicago’s fugitive unit. “Or they were two degrees of separation away from the victim or victims.”

Papachristos wrote in a paper last year, “It thus appears that murder in these communities occurs in a very small world where the victims are just a few handshakes away from each other.”

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