Despite a string of killings in the waning days of March, the death toll in Chicago so far this year trails the near-record levels of 2016 — but still is well above average for recent decades.
Through the first quarter of this year, there were 139 homicides citywide as of Friday evening, down from 147 during the same span in 2016. In the dismal accounting of crime statistics, that’s good news, but not great, said criminologist Jeff Asher.
“You don’t want to be discouraged, because any drop is good,” Asher said. “But looking at it from more of a historical perspective, 2016 was a very bad year.”
The three-month murder total may be behind the pace of 2016, but last year’s murder tally topped 780 killings, the highest total in nearly two decades. Compared to the first three months of 2014, murders have more than doubled, and are 60 percent higher than in 2015, according to CPD statistics.
Chicago was not alone in seeing a spike in crime, Asher pointed out, noting that nationally, 60 percent of cities with a population larger than 250,000 people saw increases in homicides. Overall, Chicago’s had the most murders of any major city, but the murder rate of 28 killings per 100,000 residents was less than half the murder rate in St. Louis, according to Asher’s data.
CPD officials have touted technological investments in place already this year, including the wider deployment of “ShotSpotter” devices that can triangulate the sound of gunshots to more quickly dispatch officers to shooting scenes.
Police union officials have blamed the increase in crime on less-aggressive police work, as rank-and-file officers’ morale has dipped amid unprecedented scrutiny of police misconduct, and investigations of the CPD by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Asher also points out that criminal activity typically dips seasonally during the first quarter of the year, when Midwestern winters tamp down criminal activity. Chicago leaders’ response to last year’s spike in crime won’t be tested until the summer months, when shootings and other violent crime tend to peak.
“You usually don’t want to make a year-end prediction based on the first quarter,” Asher said.
And Asher’s research has shown that traditional forecasting didn’t hold up well last year. Last September, usually the start of a seasonal downturn in violence, Chicago’s murder total was 40 percent above 2016 levels. The year-end total was 60 percent higher.
Rising crime in Chicago, and other cities, has puzzled criminologists, and year-to-year and month-to-month comparisons aren’t particularly helpful in figuring out answers, Asher said.
“Whatever is driving the increase (Chicago) saw last year, is still there,” he said.”Whatever is causing this is not solved by any means.”