Why Are There So Many Murders in Chicago?


After over 500 murders in Chicago in 2012, the Windy City’s violence epidemic continues – 2013 saw the deadliest January in over a decade – and continues to make national news.  The New York Times, for example, ran a recent piece noting how Chicago’s strict gun laws can’t stem the tide of violence.

The NYT piece predictably spurred much debate over gun policy, but that distracts from the real question: why exactly does Chicago have so many murders?  Chicago had 512 murders in 2012. New York City – with three times Chicago’s population – had only 418 murders, the lowest since record keeping began in the 1960s.  Los Angeles, with over a million more people than Chicago, had only 298 murders.  These other cities can’t be accused of lax gun laws or somehow being immune to guns being brought in illegally from more lenient jurisdictions. So what’s different about Chicago?

It’s impossible to say for certain what is causing Chicago’s unique murder problem, but a few possibilities suggest themselves.

  1. The number of police officers.  Depending on the report, Chicago’s police department is about 1,000 officers short of authorized strength and is facing a large number of looming retirements while few new recruits are brought in due to budget constraints. This clearly has had an impact. However, NYPD has also seen a decline in the number of officers without this effect.
  1. Police tactics. New York has made headlines with controversial, but apparently effective, tactics like the so-called “stop and frisk” policy.  The city hasn’t hesitated to defend these, even in the face of enormous negative press and lawsuits. Los Angeles has made huge strides in moving past its Detective Mark Furhman era reputation to build bridges to minority communities while Chicago has spent years and millions of dollars ignoring and defending officers who used torture to extract confessions. New York and Los Angeles also have more experience with statistically driven policing than Chicago.
  1. Politically controlled policing.  Mayor Daley hired Jody Weis from the FBI as police superintendent, but neutered his ability to run the department by assigning a political operative as Weis’ chief of staff.  Similarly, Rahm Emanuel, a fan of centralized control, has been heavily involved in driving major decisions like disbanding the anti-gang strike forces. It’s not clear whether police decisions have been driven by purely professional crime fighting concerns or, as in likely given the city’s culture, political considerations.
  1. William Bratton. Both New York and Los Angeles saw the start of their major successes against crime under the leadership of William Bratton. Los Angeles in particular was extremely smart to go hire him after his success in New York. While other cities have experienced murder declines, often with similar strategies, they are not places of the same scale, demographic diversity and political complexity of New York and LA. Perhaps Chicago should have spent whatever it took to get Bratton as police superintendent, though whether Bratton would have been willing to come into a place with such a history of political meddling with the police is uncertain.
  1. Gang fragmentation. Local and federal officials had great success taking out the leadership of many of the city’s gangs. The result has been significant gang fragmentation and a lack of hierarchical control over the rank and file that some have blamed for contributing to the violence epidemic.
  1. Depopulation. Few analyses of Chicago’s murder problem focus on the city’s very poor demographic performance.  New York City and Los Angeles are at all time population highs. Other urban areas like Boston and Washington, DC have started rebounding from population losses. However, Chicago lost a stunning 200,000 people in the 2000s and now has a population rolled back to levels not seen since 1910.  Loss of population in many neighborhoods has had many pernicious effects, including a loss of social capital (notably middle class families), loss of businesses due to loss of customers, and a diminished tax base.  It’s hard to maintain social cohesion in the face of both extreme poverty and population decline.  Similarly, the Chicago region had the worst jobs performance of any large metro in the US during the 2000s, which couldn’t have helped.
  1. Public housing demolitions. Chicago’s high rise projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes were yesterday’s national shame as hotbeds of crime and the killing of youths. Chicago was one of the most aggressive demolishers of these, with all of the high rises effectively destroyed. While this perhaps reduced localized crime, it destroyed the only homes many people had ever known, and, like depopulation, destroyed significant social capital and possibly simply redistributed and dispersed crime, as some research in other cities has suggested.  New York’s public housing is hardly problem free, but NYC  took a very different approach, investing in the high-rises rather than destroying them.  It’s hard not to speculate on what this has meant to the trajectory of crime in those two cities.

Whatever the actual answer may be, Chicago’s murder epidemic continues to ravage families and neighborhoods. Given the results in January, it would appear the city is no nearer to getting a handle on it than it was a year ago. A reconsideration of the differences between Chicago and other large cities, and a resulting adjustment in strategy, would seem to be long overdue.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.

Chicago photo by Bigstock.

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