Deserted during the pandemic and battered by looting, downtown Chicago is grappling with a rise in violent crime that threatens the reputation of the city and its economic viability.
Murders, shootings, rapes and car thefts are all up sharply in the downtown area, prompting fears among residents and business owners similar to those that have long been a reality in struggling neighborhoods beyond the skyscrapers.
And some of the same frustrations.
“How do you suggest that we engage this problem going forward?” Mel Jones, from the Clark and Division Collaborative, asked police officials during a community meeting in mid-October.
“Do we just wear Kevlar vests at night?” he said. “Do we just watch businesses leave our community?”
Stepped-up efforts announced by the Chicago Police Department and City Hall haven’t kept violent crime from rising in the downtown area, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of data from 16 beats in the Central, Near North and Near West police districts.
In the first 10 months of this year, more people were shot there than in any year since 2016: at least 77. Seven of them died. Three others have been killed by other means.
The number of shooting victims is more than triple what it was for all of 2019.
In just the Central police district — which includes much of the downtown business district — the total number of shootings and total shootings per 1,000 residents has shot up nearly 220% since 2019 — by far the largest increase in any police district in the city.
The Near North district, which includes parts of downtown and also Lincoln Park, saw the second-highest rise in shootings in that time — 120%.
The downtown area has also seen a 35% increase in sexual assaults — to nearly 200 cases — and a 51% increase in car thefts — to more than 800, while the numbers of robberies and aggravated batteries have dropped in the past two years.
The numbers mirror a troubling trend across the city.
Through Oct. 23, at least 617 people have been fatally shot and at least 3,768 have been wounded in Chicago, putting the city on target for what’s likely to be one of its deadliest years since the mid-1990s. There have been another 45 non-shooting homicides, according to CPD data. Most of the violence has been in predominantly Black and Brown communities on the South Side and West Side, which are still far more dangerous than downtown.
“Not only are we trying to deal with things that are happening downtown,” John O’Malley, the deputy mayor of public safety, told the Sun-Times, but also “dealing with and having these same conversations and same meetings with community members all across the city, where some areas violence is a daily, if not hourly, concern.”
Those things include unchecked nightlife, slow police response times, a growing number of unanswered 911 calls and more and more gang crime, according to interviews with people who live and work downtown.
‘People are fed up’
In the last 10 years, downtown Chicago has been the fastest-growing part of the city.
More than 168,000 people live in the 16 police beats reviewed by the Sun-Times, an increase of 31%, or nearly 40,000 more people since the 2010 census.
More people meant bustling streets and good business. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said the Loop “serves as the neighborhood for our entire city where Chicagoans and visitors alike from all walks of life come together.”
Then, in March of last year, the pandemic prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to issue a statewide stay-at-home order that brought normal life to a halt — and turned Chicago’s economic hub into a ghost town.
Two months later, downtown streets were crowded again, this time by protesters following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On May 30, people protesting police brutality clashed with officers in the Loop. Looters gutted stores downtown and throughout the city.
Eight people were killed and 15 wounded across the city. Downtown was hit particularly hard, with two killed and seven wounded, marking the worst day for gun violence in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods in at least five years.
Downtown was hit with more looting in August 2020 after police shot 20-year-old Latrell Allen during an armed encounter in Englewood. Hundreds of people descended on the Magnificent Mile, where they tangled with cops, damaged property and tore through stores. Three people were shot.
Last year saw the most shootings downtown in years. This year already has surpassed those bleak numbers.
Among the attacks that have captured the city’s attention:
- On April 6, Deandre Binion shot 22-month-old Kayden Swann in the head during a road-rage attack on DuSable Lake Shore Drive near Grant Park, according to police.
- The morning of May 15, the drill rapper Lil Reese was among three people wounded in an exchange of gunfire at a parking garage on a busy Near North Side block.
- The night of Sept. 4, Dennis Green shot a CTA bus driver in the jaw after the driver asked him to step off the bus when it reached the end of the line in the Loop, police said.
- The afternoon of Sept. 16, a 26-year-old man was shot in the leg while skateboarding in Grant Park.
- The evening of Sept. 29, at least four bystanders were wounded, one critically, during a rolling gunfight between two cars through West Town.
Other cities, including Detroit and New York, are facing some of the same issues. An unprecedented rise in the number of homicides nationally led to a 5% increase in violent crime last year.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward winds through downtown, said rising crime is “driving the sense of unease” and “prevailing fear” among his constituents, some of whom deluge him with emails saying they’re moving away.
“I think we’re at the tipping point right now,” Hopkins said. “People are fed up. I’m fed up.”
‘It was absolutely random’
A lawyer from Detroit was almost killed while vacationing in Chicago earlier this year, but he told the Sun-Times he has come to expect such attacks in big cities.
The lawyer, who didn’t want to be named, was walking down the Magnificent Mile with his teenage son when a man with a knife rushed up.
“Give me your phone, or I’ll kill you,” the man screamed.
“As I was saying no, he was stabbing me at the same time,” the lawyer said. “I don’t think if I would’ve given him anything, I’m not sure that it would have changed the outcome.”
The nicked artery in his neck began to bleed, and an employee at a nearby Walgreens ran out with bandages before two police officers administered a dressing to clot the blood, he told the Sun-Times.
He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he underwent surgery and stayed for two days.
The man credited those who helped him with saving his life after the “absolutely horrific” attack. Still, he said the stabbing wouldn’t stop him from visiting again.
“I don’t think I have any fear to return,” he said. “It was absolutely random. It could happen anywhere.”
Another visitor to Chicago, Anat Kimchi, was attacked downtown later in the year and killed.
Kimchi, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, was taking a stroll along South Wacker Drive on the afternoon of June 9 when police say Tony Robinson approached from behind and stabbed her in the neck and back.
“The randomness of this is hard to explain,” the judge said in denying Robinson bail. “Frankly, it is an act of terrorism on the community.”
In their first public statement about the attack, Kimchi's parents decried “the tragedy of Anat’s senseless murder, by a random attack on the sidewalk on a sunny Saturday afternoon. [It] is a terrible loss to our tight-knit family.”
Kimchi was months away from her doctorate in criminology and criminal justice, which was awarded posthumously.
Both attacks were seemingly random. Yet, coupled with the steady headlines of shootings and other crimes downtown, they added to the growing sense of danger downtown.
Some of the crimes are taking place even in the most bustling downtown areas, where popular restaurants serve Chicago staples like deep-dish pizza.
As Kristen MacDonald and Monika Diskaite sat at a patio table outside Lou Malnati’s on Rush Street around 9:30 p.m. on a warm Friday night earlier this month, two men argued a few feet away. The argument got louder, and MacDonald and Diskaite saw one of the men double over after apparently being struck in the stomach. A police dispatcher later announced that the man had been stabbed.
The man was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in critical condition.
“That is definitely the first time I’ve experienced something like that in this neighborhood,” said Diskaite, who moved to River North from Lincoln Park a few months ago.
Shut down Division Street?
At the monthly meeting with police in the Near North District, residents raised a flurry of concerns about gangs, carjackings, public drug dealing, prostitution and robberies.
Michael Boccio, who sits on the board of the Gold Coast Neighbors Association, was among several people who placed the blame on the neighborhood’s nightlife scene.
“Just all hell breaks loose in this neighborhood,” he said.
Police data shows that most shootings happen at night and on weekends. The downtown police beat with the most shootings this year — 12 — is on the west side of River North, not far from the Gold Coast. Another beat on the west side of the South Loop had 11 shootings.
Boccio said he pitched an idea to City Council members that he called “Division Goes Dark.” Every business between State and Orleans streets would be closed between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The city already started prohibiting parking on some downtown streets from midnight to 5 a.m. — and aggressively tows cars from the area.
Also raised at the meeting were falling police staffing levels and lagging response times — issues that City Council members have repeatedly complained about under police Supt. David Brown.
“We are short on manpower,” Officer Marcus Burnett acknowledged. “And that’s on every watch.”
Like districts throughout the city, downtown has lost officers who have been transferred to specialized units on the force or have left the department for other jobs or retirement.
“There’s clearly a strong perception by many people that law enforcement response times are insufficient,” said Jim Wales, president of South Loop Neighbors and the retired police chief of northwest suburban Lake in the Hills.
Sharp rise in unanswered 911 calls
A Sun-Times analysis found a sharp rise in the number of 911 calls that the police have been unable to answer. “Radio assignment pending” events — when there are no police cars to respond to a call in a district — have jumped 64% through the end of September, from 4,795 last year at this time to 7,854 this year.
Compared to this time in 2019, the volume of unanswered calls has more than doubled.
Officers still answer urgent calls, such as shootings. But they don’t respond to other reported crimes, like shoplifting or burglaries.
In the Central and Near North police districts, there were 433 assignments pending, up 52% over the same period last year.
Still, the data shows such backups are mostly concentrated in police districts on the city’s South Side and West Side, where crime is the heaviest. A single police beat in West Garfield Park, for example, has had 62 shootings this year.
‘Where the scenery is better’
The racial makeup of the victims of shootings would suggest that many are from outside the area. While less than 10% of downtown residents are African American, they make up about three-quarters of the shooting victims from this year and last. Just three shooting victims have been white, the largest demographic group who comprise nearly two-thirds of the population downtown.
One theory behind the rising violence in the area is that people in the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods have sought refuge there.
“The violence has gotten so bad in our communities that those in the streets are moving to what they perceive to be safe areas to hang out,” said Lance Williams, a professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University.
Once downtown, those people might be the target of a crime or commit a crime themselves against people they think are less likely to fight back or have a gun, Williams said.
“The mentality in the streets is that it’s too dangerous to do crime in these communities because the reaction is immediate,” Williams said. “People don’t depend on the police. People protect themselves. Every man has to have a gun. It’s a Wild West mentality.
“People in Hyde Park and downtown are easier targets,” he said.
Experts have warned for years that violence can’t be contained within Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, according to Williams.
“We said it was going to spill over in the downtown tourist districts,” he said. “We knew the dam was going to break.”
One police official said that some gang members saw friends on social media bragging about being downtown during the pandemic and joined them.
“They would rather be parked at State and Ohio than Pulaski and Jackson where the scenery is better and the odds of getting shot are lower,” the official said, speaking on the condition of not being named.
Crime ‘top of mind’ for retailers
Farzin Parang, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, worries that crime and the “fear of crime” are now “detractors from people coming back” as pandemic restrictions ease.
“We’ve often asked for a strategy of promoting visibility in particular, having officers moving around [and] visible,” he said. “A lot of that goes towards what I refer to as the distinct problem of perception of crime and safety.”
Even as thefts have dropped dramatically this year, Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said Chicago has become an “epicenter” for “organized retail crime,” pointing to an armed robbery spree earlier this month that hit 7-Eleven stores in the Loop.
“It’s not the same as a 14-year-old walking out with a candy bar,” Karr said. “These are coordinated. They have shopping lists. They prepare with U-Haul vans and getaway cars. And it is being used to fund other criminal activity.”
Crime is now “top of mind” for retailers weighing whether to move to the city and for those considering whether to leave, he said.
Karr said he’s not aware of any business owners leaving due to crime. But he said crime has affected decisions to close store locations and cut back hours in some cases.
“Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, there’s a perception that it is increasingly unsafe downtown,” he said. “And I think it’s going to take a concerted effort by everyone in leadership to address it over a long term.”
O’Malley, the deputy mayor of public safety, was pressed about downtown crime during a meeting with BOMA in July. O’Malley said he had blunt words for the organization.
“They’re yelling at me about the crime in downtown Chicago,” he said during a July 15 meeting of the Chicago Police Board, which he previously served on. “I told them, ‘Y’all need to get in your car and go to Gresham, Austin, Lawndale, Englewood, Roseland.’
“Don’t come to me, yelling at me about the crime downtown,” he said. “I’m sorry that Suzie who lives in Lisle thinks she’s afraid to come downtown because the last 18 months she’s been working in her pajamas from home. We’re working downtown. The police are downtown.”
O’Malley said he pressed members of the association about what their own private security contractors were doing.
In an interview, he said he’s told BOMA and other groups they “can’t put safety and security 100% on the shoulders of the Chicago Police Department.”
But O’Malley said the area could use more police and that City Hall is considering offering more resources to the Central and Near North districts, particularly for large events.
He said police have been more visible in River North, especially after a video went viral in late August showing two men being attacked and robbed in the 400 block of North State Street as onlookers watched and danced.
“If we had more coordination before that, we could maybe have avoided that,” he said.
Lightfoot budget includes money for cops, mental health
Hopkins complained that City Council members can’t find out how many cops are working at any given time.
But he also said controlling crime requires a holistic approach and addressing deeply rooted issues like homelessness and mental health.
“It’s past time to stop pitting social services and mental health funding against funding for police and traditional law enforcement programs,” the alderperson said. “They should not be competing against each other. They’re both part of the solution, and they’re both justified in the call for increased funding.”
Lightfoot’s 2022 budget, approved this past week, increases the police department’s budget by $189 million, to just under $1.9 billion. It also includes $86 million for the Chicago Department of Public Health’s mental health budget. Of that, $52 million would be new funding.
The budget includes $12 million for a stabilization housing program and a proposed facility with up to 60 beds for homeless people while they receive on-site psychiatric and substance abuse treatment.
Another $15 million would fund 911 response teams with mental health professionals.
“This crime wave must end, and it can end,” Hopkins said. “And there’s things we can do to help bring about that end. And that’s what the conversation should focus on.”
Tom Schuba, Andy Grimm and Frank Main are Sun-Times staff reporters. David Struett is a Sun-Times wire reporter. Data analysis by Andy Boyle and Jesse Howe.