The effort of Chicago Police Department and the city council that efforts to reduce homicides is showing signs of improvement the numbers are very deceiving to those who look from outside the city.
But telling the story of gun violence in Chicago only through the rise and fall of the CPD’s homicide stats misses another narrative entirely. To see this, reporters from Chicago’s Data Reporting Lab looked at homicide and shooting data covering Cook County, which contains the city of Chicago. These figures from the Illinois Department of Health and official Chicago police statistics reveal not only the number of gun-related homicides but also the number of patients discharged from county hospitals with gunshot wounds from 1990 to 2015.
The narrative they tell is a slightly different one: As murders trended down overall, the number of shootings has been holding relatively steady—and even scaling up.
While homicides by firearms went down over that stretch—by 30 percent overall—shootings do not appear to follow the same pattern. The annual number of Chicago-area gunshot victims who survived and were discharged from the county’s hospitals bounced up and down, starting with 677 in 2005 and ending at 870 in 2015, according to hospital inpatient discharge records.
In other words, the story of Chicago’s lower homicide rates during the 2000s and 2010s doesn’t seem to be intimately connected to law enforcement tactics, as city leaders and police officials often suggest.
During the years when homicide was in decline, police regularly touted new programs and legal strategies that were used to lop the head off the gangs that bloodied the streets of Chicago for generations. It was an easy sell: More community policing, hit the hotspots of drug dealing and gun trafficking, and use random stops to clear out cars of drugs and weapons. But that explanation came unglued after 2015.
The Chicago Police Department and the Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. But current Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has cited new policing strategies and tactics as the chief reason the slayings dropped by more than 100 in 2017. “The fact that we’ve got it over 100 in terms of reduction is really room for encouragement and positive thinking going into 2018,” Johnson told the Tribune, which uses a different methodology for calculating homicides in Chicago: Their calculations bring the 2017 toll up to 670, which includes slayings on expressways (which are patrolled by state police).
It’s also worth noting the period covered in this analysis was a turbulent one for the Chicago Police Department, which saw a turnover of several superintendents and was the target of a scathing Department of Justice investigation in 2015. As crime surged in that year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel remarked that the department had gone “fetal” in their policing tactics in the aftermath of controversial police shootings, a comment that drew fierce opposition from officers and contributed to the national debate around the “Ferguson effect” and its possible role in explaining crime upticks in several U.S. cities.
“It’s sad that our paramedics are great at what they do. It’s sad that they should be getting that kind of experience on the streets of Chicago.”
Other first responders might be less surprised by the relationship between policing, shootings, and homicides.
“Everyone knows it’s the fire department that saves lives in Chicago,“ said one high-ranking Chicago Fire Department official who declined to be identified, “not the police.”
It’s a distinction that the city’s policymakers should heed. “It’s not really the murder rate but the shootings that we ought to be looking at,” said Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and a former alderman representing the South Side’s Fourth Ward. “The world-class nature of our trauma care masks, to some extent, the problem. … Looking at the gun violence issue as simply a policing issue is a terrible mistake.”