To get a measure of just how bad crime is on Chicago’s West Side this year, a good place to start is about 350 miles away — Minneapolis.
That city has struggled with violence since May, when a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck long enough that he died, which touched off protests, looting and rioting that spread to Chicago and elsewhere across the country.
Floyd’s killing shattered the friendly, stoic image of that city of 425,000, which is dealing with a growing murder problem. Through mid-November, Minneapolis has had almost 75 killings — stunning for a city that saw fewer than 50 killings in all of 2019.
As bad as the violence might seem in the Minnesota city, consider this: A single Chicago police district — the 11th, also known as the Harrison District — has seen more people killed this year than in all of Minneapolis.
And the 11th is just one of Chicago’s 22 police districts.
Stretching from Roosevelt Road on the south to Division Street on the north and Cicero Avenue on the west to Western Avenue on the east, it’s not even six square miles — a little more than one-tenth the size of Minneapolis.
Through mid-November, nearly 90 people have been killed so far this year in the Harrison District — about 15 more than in all of Minneapolis.
Nearly 70 people were killed over the same period last year in the West Side district that’s usually one of the most violent areas in Chicago.
This year, the 11th District’s body count towers above Chicago’s 21 other police districts, and that’s helped drive the number of killings citywide to more than 700 so far this year — more than 50% more than over the same time last year.
At the rate things are going, the number of killings in Chicago this year could end up higher than in any year since 1998.
The police department’s response to the violence has evolved over time.
Early this year, interim Supt. Charlie Beck reorganized the police department to put an emphasis on fighting crime at the district level. Then, his successor, Supt. David Brown, took a different tack, putting about 1,000 officers on new teams operating citywide, rather than limiting those officers to a single police district, in an effort to combat gun crime, looting and rioting.
In recent months, district officers have complained of being undermanned and working in conditions they fear put them at greater risk of getting the coronavirus. Arrests and traffic stops have fallen during the pandemic. And, as in Minneapolis, the number of police officers putting in for retirement is up in Chicago, though not as sharply.
On Saturday, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum sent a message to its members — police chiefs across the country — citing similar problems in other departments.
“The day-to-day activity of working cops has changed when it comes to proactive police work,” said Chuck Wexler, the group’s executive director. “And the bad guys know this. Many of them are now carrying weapons because they recognize that the chances of being stopped have been significantly reduced.”
Wexler said police reform and good police work can’t be mutually exclusive.
“They must work together toward the same goals,” he said. “But right now the prevailing narrative has had a devastating effect on officers who want to engage in proactive police work but fear the consequences.”
Many other big cities — among them New York, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Nashville, Tennessee — also have seen big increases in the number of homicides this year. Through mid-November, New York has seen 405 killings this year, compared with 295 over the same period last year — a 37% increase.
The entire Nashville metropolitan area, with a population of nearly 700,000, has had about the same number of killings as there have been in the 11th District this year. San Francisco, with a population of almost 900,000, has had far fewer: 50 killings through Sunday, compared with 35 last year.
Even in an area known for violence, some parts of the 11th District stand out as particularly deadly, with the killings concentrated in a few very dangerous places, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of city crime data:
- Through mid-November, 54 people were killed west and south of Garfield Park, which lies in the middle of the district.
- A small corner of the 11th — near Chicago and Homan avenues north of the park — has seen 18 killings.
- An area east of the park that’s at least four times as large has had fewer killings: 15.
- Another large area in the district, northwest of the park, has seen three killings.
The high-violence areas are where most of the drug dealing and fatal overdoses in the Harrison District happen, according to city and county records and court documents.
In a program that the police have been trying in the 11th District, they have been arranging treatment for nonviolent drug users rather than locking them up.
But authorities continue to crack down on so-called open-air drug markets in the West Side district. According to federal prosecutors, police officers made more than 2,400 drug-related arrests around a drug market in the 1000 block of North Monticello Avenue between January 2019 and May 2020. More than 220 other arrests were for weapons. And officers were asked to respond to a staggering 19,000 calls about drug dealing there.
In July, federal authorities charged 18 men with drug conspiracy as part of an investigation into that drug spot. Last month, 39-year-old Anthony Sipp, described as an influential member of a faction of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang, was fatally shot in the same area.
Vacant lots where drug dealers and their customers congregate can be seen on block after block in the 11th District. In the most dangerous areas, poverty is also the worst, and grocery stores are far away.
“Anyone who has spent any time in Garfield Park will realize the enormous need the community has had for decades, if not generations, for real economic development and opportunity and the scale of the resources that are required,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “The good news is that progress is likely to fuel more progress — to create a virtuous cycle. Investments that promote development should help reduce violence, which all the data suggest should, in turn, lead to more development.”
For decades, the violence in West Garfield Park has stood in stark contrast to other parts of the city, figures from the crime lab show. In the now-affluent 18th District, which includes the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, the murder rate has dropped from 24 killings for every 100,000 people in 1985 to about seven per 100,000 this year. Over the same period, the 11th District’s murder rate has soared — from 46 per 100,000 to about 120 per 100,000.
In Minneapolis, the murder rate is about 16 people killed for every 100,000 residents.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she’ll continue to make poverty and crime in areas like West Garfield Park priorities with her $12.8 billion “pandemic budget” that was passed Tuesday. City officials point to her Invest South/West plan to rebuild distressed communities, improvements to health care and traffic safety and support for affordable housing and millions of dollars for violence-intervention groups.
“This effort is different than anything that has come before,” Lightfoot said in her October budget address. “We are not doing a series of one-off, disconnected transactions for the community.”
After decades of hearing such promises, though, some activists and aldermen are skeptical. Black Lives Matter and other organizations say Lightfoot’s budget doesn’t go far enough to boost low-income areas like the West Side.
“Instead of a moral budget, we got a do-nothing budget,” Emma Tai of the activist group United Working Families said at a news conference the day before the budget was approved.
On Tuesday, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) criticized the $1.7 billion Lightfoot earmarked for the police department after a summer of protests, calling for defunding the police. She voted against the budget.