More Questions than Answers: A Review of Gun Violence in Chicago

The University of Chicago Crime Lab released a report in January 2017 that details the sudden spike in gun violence that persisted throughout 2016. The Crime Lab analyzed key data in an attempt to discover what triggered the dramatic increase in gun-related crime. Many of the findings were not surprising: Gun violence was disproportionately concentrated in economically deprived neighborhoods on the south and west sides, and the victims were predominantly young black men. This uniquely comprehensive report provides data on the victims, suspects, firearms, police practices, weather patterns, social services spending, and cross-city comparisons over multiple years. The variables that often serve as indicators of violence, though thoroughly evaluated, did not change substantially in 2016, so the definitive cause of the 58 percent increase in homicides remains unknown.

In addition to the data describing Chicago Police Department suspects, the Crime Lab also presents the clearance rate for homicides and shootings, defined as the number of cases in which an arrest was made divided by the total number of cases. The homicide clearance rate in 2016 was 26 percent, which means that the police were unable to identify suspects for 74 percent of the homicides committed. Further, in the recurring theme of the report, these percentages did not significantly change from 2015 to 2016, and therefore do not help explain the abrupt rise in homicides. 

Despite the incomplete information on the homicide perpetrators and the absence of a direct link to any events that led to the increase in violence, the Crime Lab asserts that, “the solution to a problem need not be the opposite of its cause.” Often summarized as the streetlight effect, solutions to problems exist both in the light of available information, as well as in the darkness of unexplored ground. As it relates to violent crime, the evidence of a common thread between the victims of these crimes may provide a foundation upon which to build solutions to both violence and the compounding issues that foster it. As many local analysts have noted, the decrease in social services caused by the budget impasse, the influx of guns from bordering states, the city’s poverty rate, the demolitions of public housing projects, and a number of other social conditions could cause an increase in violence. The Crime Lab rules these factors out as causal evidence for the recent surge, as there were no abrupt changes in these factors starting in early 2016; however, the report does acknowledge that such issues play a role in the city’s ongoing gun violence problem.

The data presented on the victims also imply a relationship between extreme poverty and violent crime. The neighborhoods that experienced the largest homicide increases – Austin, Englewood, New City, West Englewood, and Greater Grand Crossing – are also the neighborhoods with some of the highest unemployment rates in Chicago. In these neighborhoods, nearly 27 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Poverty and unemployment have plagued these communities for decades, so a causal relationship between the recent surge in violence cannot be inferred. However, research has shown that areas suffering from long-term unemployment are more likely to experience violent crime. By addressing the social and economic issues in these communities, it may be possible to achieve a reduction in violent crime and see an improvement in overall quality of life.

The Crime Lab encourages policymakers and community activists to take the information presented to build conversations around these topics in order to develop meaningful short-term and long-term solutions. Despite some uncertainty for the implications of the data, they provide a thorough picture of a problem that has been years in the making and is likely to take years to solve.  

Article Source: Kapustin, Max, Jens Ludwig, Marc Punkay, Kimberly Smith, Lauren Speigel, and David Welgus.Gun Violence in Chicago, 2016.University of Chicago Crime Lab (2017): 1-31.

Featured photo: cc/(passigatti, photo ID: 535452290, from iStock by Getty Images)

Anne Gunderson
Engineer turned policymaker. Detroiter turned Chicagoan.

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