Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot in an 84-hour window, according to the Chicago Tribune. Fourteen were dead by Monday morning, including two boys, aged 14 and 16, who were killed by police in separate incidents when they allegedly refused to drop their guns. Things were so chaotic Sunday night that officers responding to the spasm of violence reportedly kept interrupting one another on their radios to report still newer bursts of gunfire. The string of shootings garnered national media attention and prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to plead with residents on Monday to put down their guns. “Wherever you are, wherever you live, the gun violence that was part of this weekend is totally unacceptable,” Emanuel told a gathering of concerned citizens on the city’s South Side, where many of the shootings took place.
The outbreak of violence stood in stark contrast to the message coming from Chicago City Hall in April, when Emanuel and his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, trumpeted police statistics that showed the city had seen its lowest number of murders for the first three months of a year in more than a half-century. That announcement followed January’s much-hyped news that 2013’s homicide total was 415—still a lot of people killed, but 88 fewer than the previous year and the lowest total since 1965. Emanuel, up for re-election early next year, has highlighted the city’s progress in curbing violence in what was the nation’s murder capital in 2012.
How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory narratives? On the one hand, the stats suggest that violent crime is falling in Chicago; on the other, the Windy City remains riddled by gang-related violence. The Fourth’s bloody toll wasn’t even unusual. Just last year, more than 70 people were shot, 13 of whom were killed, during the same four-day stretch. Things were slightly better in 2012, with at least 8 people killed. All told, if you tally the homicides in Chicago over the Thursday-to-Sunday window closest to July 4, this year’s long weekend was the eighth since 2002 to see double-digit murders, according to the city’s own statistics.
The sad reality is that by the time July 4, 2015, rolls around, we will have largely forgotten this past weekend’s violence. We’ve already done so for last year’s Independence Day. The fact that this past holiday weekend was only marginally worse than last year’s was a detail largely missing from much of the coverage this week. Even the Tribune, which provided by far the most detailed coverage of the shootings in real time, failed to mention the comparison in its online report on Monday and made only a passing, vague reference to it in its otherwise-comprehensive front-page follow-up the next day. Likewise, few reports bothered to mention a similar string of shootings less than three months ago that left 9 dead and 36 others injured over Easter weekend.
The media might have a short memory when it comes to Chicago violence, but the city’s Police Department appears to go to great lengths to willfully forget. Chicago magazine published a two-part investigation this year that detailed how the department appeared to be using pretty much every trick in the CompStat book to artificially deflate the city’s homicide and violent crime numbers. The reporters, David Bernstein and Noah Isackson, were able to identify 10 people “who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents—all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons.” Given more time and better access, the article implies, the two reporters could have found plenty more examples of what would be considered murders by everyone but the police. The magazine’s investigation likewise documented that the police used similar tricks to depress the city’s larger violent crime rate.
McCarthy has brushed off those allegations as “absolute nonsense,” but Chicago magazine isn’t alone in making them. A recent audit from the city’s inspector general that focused on assault-related incidents found that police were counting crimes with multiple victims as a single offense, an accounting trick that led to an underreporting of victims by 24 percent in the sample studied. That means a shooting that left a half-dozen people injured—as several did this past weekend—might register in the police books as a single shooting incident. Put another way, recent history suggests that there’s a realistic chance that by this time next year, the dead and injured from this past July Fourth won’t be fully counted in Chicago’s official crime statistics.
Even if a portion of the recent drop in crime numbers is due to a statistical sleight of hand, most observers agree that violent crime is indeed falling in Chicago, as it is in most major cities. But the overall numbers obscure the fact that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and much of the violence has been sequestered in poor, predominantly black areas of the city where gang violence goes largely unnoticed unless it comes in bunches, as it did this past weekend. After crunching the homicide numbers for 2000 through 2010, Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos found that the murder rate was about 3.1 per 100,000 residents living in the Northwest side’s Jefferson Park. Less than 10 miles away in West Garfield Park, the rate was more than 20 times that, a staggering 64 per 100,000, or roughly in line with the casualty rate for civilians in Iraq at the height of the last war. When people describe parts of Chicago as urban war zones, it is not hyperbole.
Seven aldermen on the City Council have called for an investigation into how the Police Department keeps its books, and an ACLU lawsuit against the city on behalf of a West Side community group claiming that the city doesn’t deploy police equitably across neighborhoods continues to wind its way through court.
Meanwhile, the violence continues. On Tuesday, the day after Emanuel spoke on the South Side, two more people died from gunshot wounds suffered over the weekend, and at least 11 more people were shot, including a 23-year-old riding his bike and a 17-year-old boy who was walking through a park with a group of friends. The teen was set to start college orientation on Thursday. Both died at the respective scenes.