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City needs steady focus to reduce number of homicides

Despite alarm over the soaring number of homicides, now is not the time to recycle ideas that haven’t worked.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As Chicago heads toward 700 homicides this year — a number reached only once before since 1998 — it’s time for the city to adjust its anti-violence strategies rather than abandon them altogether.

As the Sun-Times’ David Struett reported on Thursday, gun violence is up 50% from a year ago, after four years of a consistent decline. In the past, such increases have tended to resurrect old policing strategies that had been discarded. But those who track violence trends say that Chicago — like other big cities in America — is being buffeted by forces that are different this year, and that rising crime numbers do not necessarily reflect a wholesale failure of policy.

Among what is different this year:

  • The pandemic has had far-reaching effects on the number of shootings and homicides in the city by hampering anti-violence efforts. As of last week, more than 1,200 Chicago Police officers had contracted the coronavirus so far, and were off the streets while they recovered. Also, observers say police — for health reasons — are less likely to engage in activities such as traffic stops that bring them in close contact with the public. Moreover, the organizations that provide intervention to forestall violence are affected by shortages of PPE, the need to incorporate COVID-19 health precautions into their activities and pressure to address other growing community concerns such as hunger and joblessness. Murders in the city were rising even before the pandemic took hold, but the virus has made it harder to get those numbers down.
  • The reverberations from George Floyd’s death and the ensuing nationwide protests also appear to have had an effect on police activity. In June, the month after Floyd’s death, the number of murders in Chicago was up more than 80% compared with numbers from the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, the number of arrests, street stops and traffic stops plummeted. The lesson: It has become more important than ever to rebuild strong relationships among city leaders, police and communities. It won’t be easy in light of a federal lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of 60 people alleging police used violent tactics against protesters.
  • Traditionally, a bad economy is linked to an increase in crime. This year, many people have struggled as businesses have closed or been curtailed because of the pandemic.

One thing that is not contributing significantly to the increase in shootings and homicides is Cook County’s 2017 bail reform, according a story by the Sun-Times’ Frank Main about a study released this week by Loyola University Chicago. Police Supt. David Brown has said people freed on bail are committing other crimes, including shootings. But the Loyola study said bail reform did not lead to a “statistically significant” change in the amount of crime in Chicago in its first year.

Chicago is not alone in struggling with gun violence. On Tuesday, former President Barack Obama said on “The Oprah Conversation”: “Gun violence is one of those issues where we are far away from the promised land on because it’s become such a cultural hot-button issue.”

No matter how distant the goal, though, we need to recommit ourselves to reaching it.

We can’t give up when it comes to bringing down our city’s murder rate.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.