Saturday, July 19, 2014

GateHouse: ‘Mayhem’ in Chicago, not what it seems

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
July 18, 2014
The July Fourth weekend was a bloodbath in Chicago. There were 82 shootings and 16 people killed. The shootings brought unwanted national attention to the nation’s third largest city. The attention was not only unwanted but unwarranted.

A look at FBI crime statistics reveals that Chicago has been at or near the top of U.S. cities in the number of annual murders. In 2012, Chicago got the distinction of being the nation’s “Murder Capital” when the city led the nation with 500 murders. Over the last 30 years, Chicago has been among the top three cities with the most murders.

All of that sounds bad. The raw numbers cast a shadow over the city as though it were a killing zone, and everyone living in Chicago or passing through is in danger. According to the Pew Research Center, about 2.7 million people live in Chicago, more than any other city except New York and Los Angeles. The more people, the more murders. Looking at the total number of homicides in a city is too simplistic. It is unfair to label a city as the murder capital without considering the size and composition of the city.

Adjust the raw numbers for population size and determine the murder rate per 100,000 people, and a Chicago’s violence problem looks very different.

Chicago’s murder rate of 18.5 per 100,000 people came in 21st nationwide. According to Pew, that number nearly quadruples the national average of 4.7 but is nowhere near the highest in the country. Flint, Michigan, had the highest murder rate of any sizeable U.S. city. In 2012, there were 62 murders per 100,000 people.

Although Chicago’s murder rate is still high, the city has shown substantial improvement. In 1994 there were 928 murders in the city. According to the Chicago Tribune, that number has been reduced by more than half. There were 440 murders last year.

A bloody stretch like the July Fourth holiday, and the media frenzy that ensued, reinforces the notion of Chicago as the USA’s murder capital and perpetuates the city’s violent reputation, but as National Public Radio suggested, “It’s a particularly gruesome bit of statistical noise.”

“It was an awful, awful horrific weekend,” Yale University Professor Andrew U. Papachristos told NPR. “But you cannot predict a trend based on a weekend. There are spikes and drops. It never goes down in a straight line.”

In fact, in a paper published last year, “Overview: 48 Years of Crime in Chicago,” Papachristos wrote, “Chicago has seen impressive declines in crime over the last four and a half decades … the overall levels of crime and violence have fallen to record lows.”

Papachristos also points to what he calls “the crime gap” — the huge disparity in homicide rates in different areas of Chicago, which is true for most major cities. “Even though the numbers in Chicago are what they are, the gap between the worst neighborhoods and the best neighborhoods is massive,” he told NPR. Papachristos’ research found that between 2000 and 2010, the murder rate for Jefferson Park on Chicago’s Northwest side was about 3.1 per 100,000 residents. In West Garfield Park, on the West Side, the homicide rate was an astounding 64 per 100,000.

In 2012, there were 14,827 murders nationwide — about two murders an hour. That was a slight increase from 2011 but an unprecedented decrease from the high point of 24,700 in 1991.

Criminologists continue to debate the reason for the decline. Theories abound from a decline in the demand for crack cocaine, technological advancements, policing strategies, incarceration rates, even abortion and the decline of lead in the air.

The bottom line — regardless of how the media portrays it, Chicago — and America — are much safer places than they used to be.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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