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Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods were more dangerous than ever in 2021

Though the rise in murders slowed from 2020, last year was the deadliest since the mid-1990s. Mayor Lightfoot and her City Council critics are at odds over what to do.

Chicago police work the scene where a 14-year-old by was shot and killed in the 1100 block of South Karlov Ave, in Lawndale, on June 10, 2021. The teen was one of 70 shooting victims last year in Police Beat 1132, the most dangerous in the city.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Angela Hernandez-Sutton, 44, has lived on the same block in West Garfield Park nearly her entire life, but it wasn’t until this past summer that she stopped sitting out on her front porch.

As a child, she played in the spray from a fire hydrant with neighbors’ kids during the summer. In her teens, she ran the streets with neighborhood girls who were regarded as “tough.”

As a mom, she watched her own children like a hawk, until they grew up and moved away, and these days she looks out for her 88-year-old father in the home she grew up in, on West Lexington Avenue east of Pulaski Road.

But one afternoon this summer she raced to shove her dad out of harm’s way as a carload of men sprayed the block with gunfire. Her own car was strafed with bullets that, as far as she knows, were intended for a group of young men on the sidewalk a few houses down.

That’s when Hernandez-Sutton stopped sitting out front.

“I hear gunshots every day,” she said. “I just listen to hear where they’re coming from, then move to the front or the back of the house.”

The block — near the open-air drug markets of the city’s West Side and a border between rival gangs’ territory — has always had its share of violence. When Hernandez-Sutton was in high school in the early 1990s, Chicago regularly saw more than 900 murders per year.

But 2021 seems worse, she says. Far worse.

“It feels different now than it was,” she said. “You used to get a couple weeks, months even, where you didn’t hear shooting. Not anymore.”

Hernandez-Sutton’s intuition isn’t wrong. Chicago in 2021 saw 836 homicides, according to data maintained by the Cook County medical examiner’s office, though six of the victims died from complications of “remote” gunshot wounds that at least four suffered in previous years.

The county’s death toll is significantly higher than the 797 homicides reported by the Chicago Police Department, which doesn’t include expressway shootings and killings in self-defense. Nevertheless, the department’s tally is the highest in 25 years.

In neighborhoods like West Garfield Park — those with high levels of poverty and mostly minority residents — the level of violence has likely never been worse, according to data compiled by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of city violence data.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her Chicago City Council critics are at odds over what to do to stem the violence, and experts say the city will need to confront a history of disinvestment that has for decades left the same pockets of the city facing nightmarish levels of bloodshed.

Most violent areas grew even more dangerous

Hernandez-Sutton’s house sits at the eastern edge of the six-by-10-block area of Police Beat 1132, which is bordered by Jackson Boulevard, Roosevelt Road and Springfield and Kildare avenues. Police logged 400 alerts from its ShotSpotter gunshot detection system in that area in 2021. Those bullets hit one or more people 73 times, the most shootings of any of the city’s 277 police beats. A dozen people were killed, including 15-year-old Dajon Gater and 14-year-old Tyrese Taylor.

Dajon Gater, 15, who was killed in May, was one of 12 people murdered in Police Beat 1132 last year.
Provided/Andre Daniels

As 2021 drew to a close, the city’s murder total rose 3% above 2020, according to CPD statistics, a year that saw killings surge to nearly two-thirds more than the number slain in 2019. The death toll is the most since the mid-1990s but lower than in the worst years of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

Recent shootings, carjacking and retail thefts in more affluent parts of Chicago have drawn plenty of media attention to the surging violence in Chicago. But the murder rates in those neighborhoods last year were near record low levels: 3.5 murders per 100,000 residents — less than a third of the 1992 rate for those same communities.

In fact, the Crime Lab says the trends in the safer police districts in the city are closer to those in New York or Los Angeles, cities that combined, have fewer murders than Chicago.

Chicago’s bloodshed was largely confined to just a handful of neighborhoods — 10 of the city’s 77 community areas accounted for more than half of all homicides citywide. With 38 killings and a population of just 17,433, West Garfield Park’s murder rate was almost 218 per 100,000 residents — more than seven times the rate for the city as a whole.

In the seven most-violent police districts in the city, the rate was 25 times higher than the rest of the city — nearly 100 murders per 100,000 residents. That’s the largest such gap between the safest and least-safe areas in the 60 years of data tracked by the Crime Lab.

When the murder rate began tumbling citywide starting in the 1990s, the number of killings fell dramatically in poor, minority communities as well as in wealthier enclaves. But as violence spiked over the last two years, Chicago’s most-violent neighborhoods have never been more dangerous, according to data compiled by the Crime Lab.

“We do have a gun violence crisis in Chicago, and it has always been hyper-concentrated in just a handful of neighborhoods,” said Roseanna Ander, the lab’s executive director.

“The pandemic and all the knock-on effects of unemployment, business closures, disconnection … all of that exacerbated the situation and pulled the rug out from under neighborhoods that already faced a lack of access to resources.”

Chicago police work the scene where a 14-year-old by was shot and killed in the 1100 block of South Karlov Ave, in the Lawndale neighborhood, Thursday, June 10, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Record year for violence and a crisis for mayor

The two-year spike in killings in Chicago mirrors a national phenomenon. At least 12 American cities saw record numbers of homicides last year, and from 2019 to 2020, the number of murders nationwide jumped 30%, the largest single-year increase in 50 years.

In Chicago, the increase in murders from 2019 to 2020 was 55%, according to CPD homicide data, though last year’s 3% increase over 2020 trailed the national increase of nearly 7%.

The soaring violence in Chicago has become a charged issue for first-term Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

A former federal prosecutor who served on the Chicago Police Board and later campaigned as a progressive reformer, Lightfoot has been caught in the middle of a contentious debate over how to address a crime wave.

Protests after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in the spring of 2020 and the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village last spring came with calls for crime-fighting strategies that didn’t involve more aggressive policing.

Lightfoot and her newly appointed police superintendent, David Brown, rolled out tactics that offered something for those on either side of the debate. Police overtime spending reached nearly $180 million in 2020, as officers were called to manage repeated demonstrations and looting over the summer. The 2021 OT costs were budgeted for $150 million.

Brown launched a pair of citywide tactical teams to suppress crime with more than 500 total officers combined. Brown also announced the department had “rededicated” to community policing strategies, and Lightfoot committed $36 million to community-based anti-violence programs in 2021 and boosted funding to more than $80 million for 2022.

Lightfoot’s violence prevention plan also includes hundreds of millions in spending on economic development programs in the city’s poorest, most under-resourced neighborhoods. In an interview with the Sun-Times, Lightfoot said the combined strategies go beyond what she called “putting cops on dots” — or simply throwing more police officers at high-crime areas.

Lightfoot acknowledged all city residents, regardless of where they live or what they think of policing, share a unifying connection: “They fear that they themselves could be a victim of crime.”

“It’s absolutely essential that we respond to that fear, not by swinging the pendulum one way or the other to the extreme but by making sure we lean into what works,” she said.

“That we hold violent dangerous criminals and gang members accountable but we also at the same time really double down on our efforts to get at the root cause of crime.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown talk about gun violence outside of the 11th District Chicago Police Department at 3151 W Harrison St in Lawndale, Thursday, July 22, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

During a news conference near the end of the year, Lightfoot sought to quell fears about the surging violent crime but pushed a range of responses she can do little to control.

She called for a moratorium on releasing violent crime suspects from jail to electronic monitoring, pressed federal authorities for more help cracking down on illegal guns and again touted her stalled ordinance to seize more gang-tied assets by taking them to court. The ordinance has languished with the City Council, captive to critics who question whether the proposal would be effective or even exacerbate crime.

Despite those efforts, the number of killings and shootings in the city has continued to rise, including sharp increases in some of the 15 crime-plagued neighborhoods targeted for her anti-violence spending.

But with the police department’s ranks depleted, alderpersons have been left to battle over police resources with little guidance on deployment numbers. During a news conference last Thursday, Supt. Brown promised more detectives to solve murders and more cops to engage with communities as he reflected on the “challenging year here in the city of Chicago.”

“Right now, we’re in a crisis,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times. “Our people want us to respond, and we’re doing that. And we’re going to keep doing what we know works.”

A call to go ‘back to basics’

But Lightfoot’s wide-ranging response to crime hasn’t won over critics on the City Council.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) has emerged as one of the mayor’s loudest detractors and a more conservative alderperson. Lopez called for more aggressive policing, a “get back to basics” approach he said is needed to contain crime before shifting to programs that target poverty and the cycle of violence.

“Many of our officers are not arresting people, are letting crimes that happen right in front of them go by because they don’t want to be misconstrued as being racist or being held liable for any kind of misconceived notions of brutality or whatever,” he said.

Ald. Raymond Lopez
Ald. Raymond Lopez
Sun-Times file

Lopez wants the police department to address looting and pervasive carjackings by revisiting chase policies and procedures that he said prevent cops from apprehending crime suspects. But he’s also pushing ordinances aimed specifically at tamping down crime.

In June, for example, he introduced legislation that would fine kids and young adults for breaking certain laws — like breaking curfew, public intoxication and having a gun — and require them to undergo family counseling. The measure is part of a larger effort “to invest as much money in restoring families in their values as we do in anti-violence initiatives,” he said.

“Otherwise, we might as well just set on fire the $80 million we’re putting aside for anti-violence because none of it will matter if you have someone without values or empathy for other people,” Lopez said.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), a member of the Democratic Socialist Caucus who has advocated for cutting police funding, shared a divergent vision for addressing the city’s “worsening” violent crime.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) speaks during the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, Dec. 15, 2021.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) speaks during the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, Dec. 15, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As Sigcho-Lopez called for a change in policing strategies and bemoaned the police department’s relatively low clearance rates, he raised concerns about spending and a possible slide back into drug war-era crime-fighting tactics. In arguing that spending more on cops will only result in more trauma in communities ravaged by violence, he pressed instead to focus on poverty, unemployment and other “root causes” of the problem.

“Last year, we had the same narrative about bringing more police officers, investing more in policing [and] protecting downtown. The budgets reflect that. We did it again. But look at the results,” said the alderperson, who introduced an ill-fated budget amendment in October to increase violence prevention spending to $100 million.

A history of violence, segregation

Patrick Sharkey, a criminologist and professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, said policymakers must look for new, more equitable solutions to violent crime. Sharkey’s book, “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence,” described how “broken windows” policing strategies prioritized an aggressive police presence and record levels of incarceration. The tactics have lowered crime but also destabilized neighborhoods and badly hurt residents’ view of law enforcement.

“One of the lessons of the past six or seven years is if you have a reduction of violence that arises from brute force — that arises by incarcerating millions of Americans — you don’t have a sustainable solution to the problem,” he said.

Sharkey, who recently co-authored an analysis of more than a half-century of Chicago violence, said the “inequalities in violence” are in neighborhoods that are predominantly Black or Latino, which middle-class residents — of all races — largely abandoned in the 1960s. The same neighborhoods have dealt with high levels of violence, year after year, for decades.

“The reason that’s the case,” he said, “is because of the persistent economic and racial segregation, not just in Chicago but in the entire metro area around Chicago, which has led to neighborhoods that have been places of disinvestment for decades.”

Murder in Chicago is highly segregated as well. Blacks were victims of more than 80% of homicides in 2021, though they make up only about a third of the city population. About 3% of the victims were white, according to CPD records.

‘What does the future hold?’

If there is a glimmer of hope to Chicago’s murder statistics in 2021, it’s the rate of increase dropped sharply, said Rick Rosenfeld, a researcher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who is tracking crime statistics during the pandemic for the National Council on Criminal Justice.

The spike in 2020 followed by a leveling off in 2021 are patterns that have emerged in cities across the country no matter the approach taken to fighting crime, Rosenfeld said.

The pandemic and highly publicized police killings seem to have been behind the two-year increase in violence, he said. The pandemic, or at least the various economic dislocations related to COVID-19, should begin to subside in 2022, he hopes. The murder rate might follow suit.

Roseanna Ander, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
Roseanna Ander, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
Sun-Times file

“I think what we’re seeing with violence is very important but relatively transitory,” Rosenfeld said, noting the course of the pandemic and social unrest may be unpredictable.

“What does the future hold? Barring another egregious incident of police use of force that goes viral and assails police legitimacy, and if the pandemic becomes endemic … then it won’t involve wholesale dislocations of the initial phase of the pandemic. I think we’re seeing a gradual decline in both the rate of increase and the number [of murders].”

But the crime surge has shown who suffers most when a shock to the social system disrupts normal life, said the Crime Lab’s Ander. Day-to-day life in many parts of the city has long been too violent.

“The neighborhoods that have seen the least investment have always had the most violence, and what we are seeing with the pandemic is that those disparities have become even more pronounced,” Ander said. “The violence has surged in the places where violence was already unconscionably high.”

Jesse Howe and Andy Boyle contributed data analysis for this report.

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