Opinion: Chicago’s Failed To Lower Homicides, Here’s What We Need To Do

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It’s a terrifying type of deja vu: homicide spikes in Chicago.

These spikes happen every year. Politicians become angry, press conferences are had, statements are read, reporters fumble around in the dark trying to find meaning in a mess of violence they may or may not understand…

We act aghast in months like this, but we shouldn’t be surprised. This has become the norm. The violence  and the reactions to it remain the same, unchanged for a decade. This is what should make us angry. It’s not September’s recent rise in homicides that should piss us off, but how normal that rise looks when the past 10 years are laid out before us.

We’ve attacked the number of guns on Chicago’s streets and advocated for harsher prison sentences long enough. It’s time for a new plan.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Darnell Wells lights a candle to remember 24-year-old niece Patricia Chew… (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Numbers

September homicides were definitely high. At 60 homicides, you have to go back to 2002 to find a September with a higher number. Compared to the past 10 years, only two months had higher homicide totals: July 2008 and July 2006.

GRAPHS: Complete Look At Chicago’s Recent Spike In Homicides

Comparing this year’s current totals to previous years, things start to look more normal. With a 10-year average of about 352 homicides by the end of September, 2015 is pacing about 5.8% ahead of the average with 372 homicides so far. When it comes to homicides between January and the end of September, there are two years with totals higher than 2015: 2008 and 2012.

With this in mind, 2015 doesn’t sound out of the ordinary to me. In fact, it seems business as usual. My guess? We’ll end the year with fewer than 500 homicides.

There was a time when fewer than 500 homicides in Chicago in one year would have been comforting. In the past 25 years, we’ve nearly cut in half the number of homicides that were occurring in the early 1990s. The past decade, this was the excuse we used as a shield whenever homicides spiked. But how long can you use that excuse, an excuse I’ve used many times — a refrain that goes, “We used to be worse!” — before it loses its significance?

Well, I’m done. After 10 years of plateauing homicides, 10 years of other major cities seeing their drops continue as Chicago’s have stayed steady, the truth is that we’ve done a terrible job at reducing homicides.

The worst part, what makes me personally the most frustrated, is the fact that the same neighborhoods continue to see a disproportionate amount of violence in Chicago. When you look at the 10 neighborhoods with the most homicides so far in 2015, the list looks nearly identical to the neighborhoods with the most murders in the years before. For 10 years, it’s not only that Chicago hasn’t been able to slow homicides more steadily, but that the city has stood by as a handful of neighborhoods have suffered the most.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Police Supt. McCarthy listens as Mayor Emanuel speaks during a press conference… (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What Are We Doing Wrong?

When I write these articles, I wonder if my focus on numbers and statistics adds to the problem.

I say this, because I’ve done this long enough to see the patterns in reactions to Chicago’s violence. It’s as if we, Chicago and the rest of the country, fetishize our homicide totals. What are we saying when we release these numbers? Are we doing anything but confirm perceptions of our city that may or may not even be true?

Reactions to the latest violence have been consistent with previous years. Totals are tallied and displayed for readers and viewers. Occasionally a writer will attempt to come to better terms with what these numbers mean.

Dawn Turner tried to understand Chicago’s homicide numbers through different contexts. She labeled it “domestic terrorism.” And while I don’t know if I agree with everything she wrote in her article, I appreciate that she’s trying to find a new way to come to terms with the reality of the violence.

In response, Jim Williams went to the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where Chicago violence recently took the lives of both a grandmother and a mother, leaving an 11-month old boy wounded. He asked a pair of residents what they thought of the violence.

“Here I am in my neighborhood scared to come in and out of my house, scared to walk to the park because I don’t know when gunshots are going to erupt,” said one resident.

The press also extensively covered the immense anger of Mayor Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.

“I apologize for my frustration and anger,” Supt. McCarthy said at a press conference on Tuesday.

“I’m going to try to control my anger …” Emanuel said in a statement.

And, you know, what a relief! I guess. It’s good to know the leaders in our city are angry. I mean, after ten years of steady violence — yes, I’m aware they haven’t been at their jobs that long — it’s nice to know they can still muster the emotions they’ve had to call on time and time again. It’s as if they weren’t present at their last press conference on Chicago violence, or the one before that, or the one before that…

Don’t mistake my sarcasm for doubt. I do not underestimate their anger! It’s clearly so unfathomably large, they’re willing to fight Chicago’s violence tooth and nail, employing the same cutting edge techniques… they’ve been touting for the past 10 years? Sigh…

They’ll go after the guns! They’ll go after the criminals! They’ll get more cops on the streets!

Well, too bad. We’ve come to a point where these promises are empty. After a decade of the same old dog and pony show, you start to wonder:

When the hell are they going to try some different tactics?

Growing Home is an urban farm and job training program... Growing Home is an urban farm and job training program…

Photo taken at Growing Home, an urban farm and job training program…

Different Tactics

Actually, credit where credit is due, the city is trying out new tactics to fight Chicago violence. Just not in any substantial way.

To be clear, I’m not saying the dominant ideas the city has been presenting over the last 10 years are bad… I just think Chicago could do a better job at combating violence if we committed more resources to a range of other techniques. Techniques that don’t only focus on gun control (a fight that must be addressed at the federal level) and imprisoning more Chicago residents (we’ve literally filled our jails to the brim, and yet kids are still dying on the streets).

Since most of the perpetrators and victims of Chicago’s violence are young, the city should look into developing the programs that help these populations the most.

In recent years, summer jobs programs for teens in low-income neighborhoods — most prominently the One Summer Plus program — have showed positive results. Helping teens in neighborhoods where the unemployment rate is double the national average, One Summer Plus has found that jobs — and sometimes counseling — are able to reduce violent crime arrests in participating teens by 43 percent.

The city has also seen positive results from offering counseling — mostly in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on teaching deliberate decision-making skills — to Chicago youths. The Becoming A Man program, which offers cognitive behavioral therapy to disadvantaged preteens and teens on the South and West Sides of Chicago, has shown to be reasonably successful. In a study that focused on 2,740 males in 7th through 10th grade, BAM reduced arrests for violent crimes among participants by 44 percent over the span of a year.

Sadly, these programs have only reached a fraction of Chicago’s teens. Currently, the city’s contribution to programs like this is about $47 million, taken out of the city budget for the Department of Family and Support Services.

That seems like a lot, right? Well, not really… Realistically, that’s a small fraction of the city’s nearly $9 billion dollar budget. In fact, that’s less than half the amount the Chicago Police Department will spend on just overtime by the end of 2015 — they’ll likely spend $100 million on overtime, $30 million over budget. The Chicago Police Department’s total budget is about $1.4 billion, by the way.

Though it’s not the amount we spend on the Chicago Police Department I have a problem with. It’s the amount we don’t spend on alternative, violence-reducing techniques that clearly have a decent success rate. While it’s wonderful Mayor Emanuel supports these programs — especially when they show positive results — it’d be nice if he put his money where his mouth is. These programs deserve more than the scraps they’ve been given.

In tandem with programs like this, the city needs to prove it supports its neighborhoods.

Rows of empty houses and condemned buildings do not make for good, safe neighborhoods. A lack of locally-run grocery stores and restaurants do not make for good, safe neighborhoods. The city needs to commit itself to investing in the neighborhoods that see the most violence.

Right now, neighborhood investments are constantly in question, especially when you look at the way the city spends TIF funds. While they’re theoretically meant to promote investments in the Chicago neighborhoods most in need, critics claim they are often wasted on private investments in more prominent parts of the city. Even with differing views over TIFs being duked out, it’s easy to call into question TIF spending no matter what side of the argument you fall on. It’s hard to see how throwing money at downtown hotels helps the neighborhoods littered with vacant lots.

Ultimately, the only way we’ll reduce homicides in Chicago is by giving the neighborhoods with the most violence not only the resources they need to flourish, but a say in how those resources are used.

After ten years of consistent violence, that’s the least Chicago could do.

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.

Sources: Chicago Data Portal, DNA Info Chicago, Chicago Tribune

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