Chicago ticked past a pair of grim milestones as August passed into September. Chicago Police said 90 people were murdered in the city in August. A few hours into Sept. 1, the total number of murders in 2016 reached 469, exceeding the tally for all of last year.
The number of murders in August was the most in a single month during an already bloody year, and the most in a one-month span in 20 years.
Year-to-date, the city has endured a 50 percent increase in murders and a similar spike in other categories of violent crime, while also grappling with public furor over police tactics following the release last year of video of a CPD officer pumping 16 bullets into teenager Laquan McDonald.
August also saw the city’s crime troubles receiving national attention. While other large cities have notched significant surges in violence, the 50 percent increase in shootings and murders in Chicago was an outlier. Numerous news reports have noted that the number of murders in Chicago is greater than the total for New York City and Los Angeles combined.
After Chicago-based rap star and one-time aldermanic candidate Che “Rhymefest” Smith was robbed at gunpoint last Saturday morning, he issued a harsh critique of the police officers who took his report to his Twitter followers.
The day before Rhymefest was robbed, Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of Bulls star Dwyane Wade, became one of the few murder victims in the city to garner attention outside the city when Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, observed in a tweet that her death was a reason for African-Americans to vote for him.
As the long Labor Day weekend loomed, the police union urged members to turn down holiday overtime and stay home, and Gov. Bruce Rauner deflected calls from activists that he should send the National Guard into the city to tamp down violence.
Spencer Leak Sr. said he is only dimly aware of the news or statistics as he goes about his work, but to his staff and clients at Leak & Sons Funeral Home in Chatham, it is clear that something is going wrong on the streets of Chicago.
The business, founded by Leak’s father in 1933, has always drawn clients from the adjacent neighborhoods of Lawndale and Englewood, areas that have seen a disproportionate share of the city’s homicides.
“It takes a toll, physically and emotionally, when you are seeing so many beautiful, young black men and women that you are working on,” Leak said Thursday. “My philosophy is not to count the families that come to our funeral home. I leave that to accountants. We just say that it is too many, and that something must be done about it.”
CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi noted several positive trends in the year-to-year comparison of 2016 and 2015: There were nearly 20 percent more murder arrests this August than last, and CPD officers have taken 5,900 guns off the street through seizures and gun buy-back events, a 22 percent increase.
“That tells me that the police officers that have sworn to protect and serve are doing their jobs,” CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson said during one of several interviews with local TV stations on Thursday.
Returning to themes that the police chief has sounded in virtually every public appearance since he was appointed to the post earlier this year, Johnson said that a relative handful of repeat offenders drive most of the violence, and he called for longer prison sentences to keep them off the streets.
“Where we need help is holding these repeat gun offenders accountable for their actions,” Johnson said. “Right now in the city of Chicago, would you believe me if I told you, pre-trial, a person who steals a pack of hot dogs for retail theft does more time in jail than a gun offender does. That’s ridiculous.”