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Silencing the guns: What kind of city do we want to be?

Chicago's surging gun violence puts the question to every Chicagoan: What kind of city do we want to be? | File photo

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of opinion essays, produced in cooperation with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, exploring solutions to the scourge of gun violence in Chicago. The Crime Lab released a report this month about the historic surge in gun violence in Chicago last year, providing insight into what happened and why. Silencing the Guns continues the conversation.

Chicago’s surge in gun violence in 2016 forces us to confront the question: What sort of city do we want to be?

Last year in Chicago, 764 people were murdered, 279 more than in 2015. To put this into perspective, 335 people were murdered last year in New York City, a city that has a population nearly three times ours.

As noted in a report this month by our research team at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, nearly four of every five homicide victims in 2016 was African-American. This is in a city in which about one-third of all residents are African-American. Most victims also live in the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, located on the south and west sides.

OPINION

In the last several years in the United States, we have witnessed a growing concern about income inequality. Does Chicago want to be a city that tolerates extreme inequality in something even more fundamental — safety?

Unfortunately, not everyone will be moved by this unfairness and human tragedy; they may conclude that because their own neighborhoods are safe this is not their problem. Even setting aside the troubling moral implications of that perspective, it is wrong on its own self-interested terms. One reason cities across the country have thrived since the early 1990s is because violent crime rates have declined substantially. The increase in homicides we have seen in Chicago in the past two years has undone about two-thirds of the long-term drop in crime the city has experienced over the past 25 years.

As Chicago thinks about what to do, it is important to understand first exactly what happened. The increase in gun violence from 2015 to 2016 was much larger than for other crimes, and the surge came suddenly. As late as December 2015, there was no sign of what was to come. But the number of homicides in January 2016 was fully 67 percent higher than in January the year before, and the murder count continued to run higher almost every month of the year.

Exactly why gun violence increased so sharply in Chicago is not yet clear. The suddenness of the increase helps rule out as a cause many factors that have not changed over time, or have changed only slowly, such as the distance to states with more lax gun laws, how the court system handles gun offenses, and social problems like poverty and racial segregation. Nor were there abrupt changes in weather, or in the city’s spending on schools or social services. This is not to say these issues are unimportant, but they do not explain why gun violence rates increased so sharply right at the end of 2015.

While the solution to the problem also is not totally clear, we can say with confidence that reducing violence will require investing more money than many people would appreciate. For example, for understandable reasons there is great interest in trying to find ways to use social programs to reduce violence while, at the same time, improving people’s long-term prospects for schooling and jobs.

While there are “only” a few thousand gun violence offenders at any given time living in our city of 2. 7 million people at any given time, even the best efforts to identify them in advance will yield a list numbering in the tens of thousands (if not more) to prioritize for social services.

Even the very best efforts to identify who they are in advance, before they commit a terrible crime, is extremely difficult. The best list we might hope to compile, in order to direct social services most effectively, still would include tens of thousands of people.

This means the social program investment required to dramatically reduce gun violence in Chicago will require many tens of millions (if not hundreds of millions) of additional dollars in support.

Similarly significant resources will be required to change the Chicago Police Department. The extent to which changes in Chicago Police practices in 2016 contributed to Chicago’s increase in gun violence is not clear. The most dramatic change in any measure of police productivity was in street stops, which declined by about 80 percent between November 2015 and January 2016. The timing fits with when gun violence began to increase so sharply in Chicago. But for that to be the cause, we would need some explanation for why New York City dramatically reduced the number of street stops several years ago without a corresponding increase in homicides.

While we do not know to what degree changes at CPD were a factor in the increase in shootings in 2016, we do have reason to believe the police could be more effective in preventing crime. In the early 1990s, Chicago and New York City had nearly identical homicide rates. While Chicago’s homicide rate declined by half before increasing again more recently, New York experienced a sustained decrease in its murder rate of almost 90 percent, with a simultaneous decrease in its incarceration rate. Most experts believe that a variety of policing changes were responsible for a large part of that drop, including big increases in the number of police, and world-class training for both new and experienced officers. The cost of these changes in Chicago could easily reach into the millions or tens of millions of dollars.

There is no magic wand to wave to end Chicago’s gun violence crisis. The question is whether Chicago will make the investments necessary to address this problem. The question, that is to say, is whether Chicago will follow in the footsteps of New York or go the way of struggling cities such as Baltimore, Detroit and St. Louis that suffer from even higher murder rates than Chicago — for now.

Roseanna Ander is executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Max Kapustin is research director at the Crime Lab. Jens Ludwig is faculty director. Julia Quinn is associate director. Kimberley Smith is research manager.

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