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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Thanks for sharing this

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Great points

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Central Planning Doesnt Work.

The main reason for Chicago's nominally higher violent crime rate? Its really not much different from any other big city.
Central Planning 101. Its what killed the Soviet Union. And now its killing the USA. Beauraucratic Micro-management simply cannot solve problems. Beauraucracy is there only to serve itself....I dont care how much you scream and kick and call me names.....this is an observable condition everywhere you go.
Chicago needs to allow more local control of everything.
1. neighborhood Cops.
2. Neighborhood Schools.
3. Neighborhood involvement.
4. Strict but Fair enforcement of the rules.....
simple as that.

Agreed, but wanted to also mention

I agree with your sentiment, bureaucracy only effectively serves it's own interests. In the US, those interests are often private/special interests since they fund the officials that appoint those bureaucrats. In other words any representative system that can hide behind bureaucracy is just begging to be purchased from the top down. Then the bureaucracy will protect its own existence, while at the same time protecting its investors.

What you may not know however, is the one of the biggest critics of soviet bureaucracy was the famed Marxist Leon Trotsky! For the exact reasons you mentioned, it wouldn't serve the workers it just served itself as the new ruling class. Obviously Stalin didn't appreciate him telling the world they were not adhering to Marxism, so he sent an agent to ice pick his skull. He realized that the goals must be achieved in a more direct, and decentralized manner, by the workers themselves.

I's also say though the war on drugs is the number 1 reason why communities are at war with police. Drugs are terrible, but prohibiting them is much worse... for this reason exactly. Talk about big government, funny how the nationalists hate big government except when it serves power and capital.

no one mentioned geography

no one mentioned geography here. Chicago lies at the heart of the nation's transportation system and is a major transhipment point for guns/drugs. It also, unlike either LA or NYC, has very large populations of BOTH Blacks and Mexicans, two communities that are widely known to have spawned competing gangs in the drugs business.

And then there is the simple demographics...whites and Asians make up 56% of NYC compared to 46% in Chicago (these two communities have the lowest rate of gun violence, or heck, just violence)

New York is 25% black compared to Chicago's 37%. And remember New York's black population is much more diverse, with larger African and Carribean immigrant populations that are not as affected by the pathologies of native black populations. In Chicago, these sorts of immigrants are nearly non-existent. It should be noted as well that New York's black population is much more dispersed throughout the boroughs compared to Chicago's two giant black ghettos which effectively isolates Chicago blacks in a uniform community/culture (and intertwined gang landscape) much more than blacks in New York.

And then there is the Latin populations, Chicago's coming in at 26% compared to New York's 27% BUT AGAIN, there are qualitative differences between these two populations, similar to the black communities. Chicago's Latin community is OVERWHELMINGLY Mexican and Central American, meaning it is much much more connected to the drug cartels than New York's much more diverse Latin population, which consists of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans as well as wealthier Latin/South Americans.

So my guess is Chicago's murder rate is higher among it's black and latino population, but probably is the same amongst the white and Asian population.

In fact, when you consider both the demographic and geographic challenges facing Chicago, it actually isn't doing so bad when compared to its peer cities. I think if the settlement patterns for blacks and Mexicans in Chicago had not been so monolthic and was more nuanced as is the case in New York, Chicago might not be witnessing the gang warfare we see today.

Houston Would Like To Have a Word With You

Houston's combined black and Latino population is around 55%. Whites and Asians make up another 35% yet how come we aren't the murder capital according to your logic? BTW Houston is RIGHT next to Mexico and we get a large number of Mexican of all social classes coming in and out of the city on a weekly to monthly basis. Houston has a Large Central American population of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Panamanians.

Possibility 8 -- lead in our water supply

Aaron, I have not seen anyone write about this in the Chicago-crime context, so I wanted to see if you had or were planning to analyze the recent studies suggesting a correlation of eliminating lead in gasoline with falling crime rates nationwide and its implications for Chicago. See Kevin Drum, America's Real Criminal Element: Lead, Mother Jone's, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline. The article is obviously leading to a lot of online political discussion (e.g., the left has always been wrong that it is about poverty and the right has always been wrong that pollution or driving is not a societal issue). What interests me is why Chicago has not seen a more noticeable decline like NYC and LA. Maybe it is one of those other 7 possibilities you mentioned (although NYC has also had politicized policing, that's why you get broken glass; similarly, other cities have seen declines with very different theories), but I have a different thought...

Assuming that lead in blood does increase violence, it would seem to me that it is very possible that Chicago's crime problem may be in part due to our water supply. The Tribune has done a series of articles over the last couple years of high lead counts in our city's tap water. See http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-01-31/health/ct-met-epa-lead-tes..., http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-lead-in-water-20110805,0,282.... I have no idea the comparison with other American cities. Nor do I know how Chicago would stack up against other cities in terms of lead paint. I have looked online but not seen anything. But, again assuming the lead theory has some validity, I would not be surprised to find that our pipes in this city are older (especially on the South and West sides where we have both a crime problem and a people leaving problem) and cause more lead exposure and thus more crime.



I've heard the urban lead hypothesis floated to explain any number of things, especially poor educational results. I don't know enough to say for sure how much of that is real. Nor do I know what might be different about lead exposure in Chicago versus other cities, but it's an angle to explore for sure.

The One Reason

The single, dominant reason for Chicago's high murder rate is the concentration of very low-class Negros who have undergone a multi-generational cultural decay in a city which since the '60s has been the hotbed of radical Leftism and tolerance of crime committed by minorities and particularly Negros due to the ideological perspective of the Left that any police action to restrain Negro property crimes and violence was per se racist. The Left is strongly racist and believes that Negros are incapable of making a decent living by their own work and in fact are in need of being coddled by the Left as a population of sheep to be shepherded by the enlightened white Leftists who have conveniently ensconced themselves in strictly separated communities from their sheep (e.g., Hyde Park versus the surrounding Negro areas). Under the "helping hands" of the Leftists, the Negros were indoctrinated to believe that they were entitled to goods, services, housing, and other privileges simply because of their raceand not based on work. Work became an abstract concept to them, replaced with a militant entitlement mentality. Coupled with lax police enforcement, black gangs arose and extended the entitlement mentality both within and outside their communities - where theft, extortion, strong arm robbery were viewed as not only acceptable, but in many cases admirable ways of getting what they felt they were owed. Gang-based property crimes, including illegal drug related crimes which occur between gangs and individuals, became the replacement for the traditional work ethic and achievement, which was derided as "acting white" after generations of single-mother welfare children had become indoctrinated by the Left that Negros were entitled by birthright to take whatever they could get by whatever means due to historical racism and the inculcation by the welfare state that Negros were incapable of competing and earning their own way in the world. Gang-based property crimes escalate to violent crimes and the laws of the jungle re-emerge as traditional morality and beliefs about social conformance to "white laws" are eroded. So we wind up with Mogadishu by the Lake.