Chicago police tout 14% homicide drop, and concede there’s more to do

Chicago police Friday touted a 14% drop in homicides so far this year compared with an exceptionally bloody 2016, saying staffing investments and other strategies are reducing the kinds of violence that left some neighborhoods in despair.

Still, the number of killings in the nation’s third-largest city in 2017 remains higher than in almost any other year of the past decade — and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said his officers know there’s more to do.

“I would say … we’re making progress … But it’s going to take time to root out everything we need to do,” Johnson told reporters Friday outside a church on the city’s southwest side.

The city’s homicide total so far this year is 609, police say. That’s a 14% decline from this point last year when there had been 710 homicides. The year 2016 ended with 771 homicides.

Johnson also highlighted the following police-compiled stats for the year’s first 11 months as evidence the Windy City is making strides:

• 703 fewer shootings reported to police, a 21% decline from this point in 2016;

• 798 fewer shooting victims, a 20% decline.

But while the number of killings may be down this year from last, this year’s 609 homicides already total well above most annual tallies in Chicago for the past decade.

“It’s important to keep in mind these numbers aren’t a spike of the football by any means,” but an indication progress is being made, Johnson said.

Still, Johnson and community activists acknowledged that current crime levels still sow fear in neighborhoods.

“It’s great there’s a slight decrease from last year, but let’s not forget that last year was the worst in 20 years,” Father Michael Pfleger, pastor at Saint Sabina Church and an activist on Chicago’s South Side, told CNN.

“Let’s not use the barometer of last year. Let’s look over the last three or four years. Hell, anything should look good next to last year.”

Chicago also has been a frequent target of criticism for President Donald Trump, who has talked and tweeted about rampant crime and the failure to fight gun violence there.

“It’s worse than some of the places that we read about in the Middle East,” Trump said in February.

Crime-fighting investments made

The 771 homicides in 2016 represented a considerable spike over 2015. It was the largest single-year homicide increase in 25 years among the five most populous US cities, according to the Justice Department.

The Chicago Tribune, which tracks homicides in the city, has a slightly higher count for 2017 than the police department: 624, as of Friday. The Chicago Police Department uses slightly different criteria when compiling its tally. For example, CPD does not include killings that occurred on area highways, or those where police are involved and it is determined to be a justifiable homicide.

Between 2007 and 2015, the number of yearly homicides in Chicago hovered between 400 and just about 500.

Johnson said certain investments, including technology, have helped police tackle crime this year.

That includes putting “strategic decision support centers” in neighborhoods that have struggled with violence, he said.

Those centers use predictive crime software that helps police commanders decide where to deploy officers. They also provide “additional cameras, gunshot detection systems, and mobile phones to officers in the field who receive real-time notifications and intelligence data at their fingertips,” Chicago police say on their website.

The centers are staffed by officers and analysts with the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

“Officers who used to patrol randomly are now more focused on where to be,” said Kim Smith, a Crime Lab research manager. “Being in the right place at the right time is crucial, especially somewhere like Chicago, where there are ever-changing gang conflicts. … We’re trying to use data to shed some light where your resources are the most effective.”

The high-tech centers are currently in place in six of the city’s 22 police districts, Smith said. Those six district last year accounted for more than half of city’s shootings but only 25% of the population.

“I cannot say with 100% certainly that the (support centers) are leading to all the reductions we’re seeing,” she said. “But I do think the processes and the use of technology … are really driving either a shift in the way the policing is done in Chicago that as a result leads to these reductions, or just getting people excited about a new initiative that seems to be working.”

The department also is in the midst of a hiring spree that will see the roster grow by 1,000 officers, Johnson said.

In June, the police department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a new task force aimed at decreasing the spread of illegal guns throughout Chicago.

The task force includes an additional 20 ATF agents, as well as 12 Chicago police officers, two Illinois state troopers, six intelligence analysts and state and federal prosecutors.

Rooting out police corruption

The police department has been plagued in recent years by corruption scandals, and a Justice Department investigation in 2016 found that it unconstitutionally engaged in a pattern of excessive force and had severely insufficient training and accountability procedures.

“If we take the route of just the new technology and do not equally push the human connection, I believe we’ll hit a dead end sooner or later,” Pfleger said. “You have to have relationship building in the community.”

Indeed, mistrust in the police has been a major factor in the city’s soaring crime rate, University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman said.

“The biggest thing that they can do now would be improving accountability, transparency and honesty and do the kinds of things necessary to build trust,” he said, though he noted that police cannot solve every problem that contributes to crime.

“The biggest things that I’ve seen in my work that drive violence in Chicago are the absence of hope, opportunity, jobs and the lack of police accountability,” Futterman added. “Jobs, hope and opportunity are not within the control of the police department.”

‘See us in a new light’

Homicides were down 44% in the city’s impoverished and notoriously deadly Englewood neighborhood — the first police district to use the new support-center technology, police said.

Greater community outreach also contributed to the decline in crime, Kenneth Johnson, the district commander, told CNN.

“We’re not just standing apart being spectators,” he said. “I want the community … to see us in a new light. We’ve been on the path for the past year of making sure the community knows us, that they trust us and believe in us.”

Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder and executive director of the organization Cure Violence, which takes a public-health approach to violence prevention, said residents and community groups should also get credit for the reduction in homicides, however slight.

He said his organization and others have “violence interrupters” on the streets of the roughest neighborhoods to intervene in gang conflicts before they escalate. The outreach workers, some of them former gang members, stay in touch with friends and relatives of shooting victims in an attempt to prevent retaliation.

“Under the crisis that Chicago had the last two and half years, people have stepped up,” he said. “The city, the state, philanthropy, the community groups have stepped up. It’s not the most dramatic reduction yet but it’s going to be. Next year is going to be much better.”

Even once-skeptical Englewood residents like activist Jahmal Cole acknowledge the benefits of the new policing strategy.

“I hated the idea of police watching us like hawks. But you can’t argue with a decline like this,” Cole, founder of the nonprofit My Block, My Hood, My City, said of the numbers for homicides and shootings.

Neighbors’ lax gun laws cited

Though Chicago has a reputation as a murder haven, it didn’t have the nation’s highest per-capita (murders per 100,000 people) homicide rate. In 2015. Thirteen large cities — population 250,000 or more — had higher murder rates. That didn’t include a host of midsized cities with more murders per 100,000 residents.

Also, cities such as Atlanta; Washington; Oakland, California; Memphis, Tennessee; and Kansas City, Missouri, all had higher violent crime rates in 2015.

But Chicago’s numerical murder rate has been higher than that of the country’s two larger cities, Los Angeles and New York. Johnson was asked whether Chicago’s reputation as a violent place bothered him.

“It’s frustrating, because when you look at the crime in Chicago, we have our challenges. We have our gun violence,” he said. “Chicago is so big that we get a lot of attention because New York and L.A., quite frankly, are seeing bigger reductions than we are.”

Lax gun laws in surrounding states also put Chicago at a disadvantage, compared with New York and Los Angeles, Johnson said.

“We’re sitting between Wisconsin and Indiana, who have very lax gun laws, so the illegal flow of guns coming into this city is a lot larger than theirs,” he said. “That just means we have more illegal guns on our streets.”