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Chicago violence hovers near 20-year high, with pockets of improvement

The Englewood District's Strategic Decision Support Center. | File photo.

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson stood before a crowd of civic leaders and business people on Thursday and touted a major decline in the number of shootings in Englewood, long one of the most violent parts of Chicago.

“The crime reduction in Englewood is at a historic high,” Johnson said in an interview expanding on the drop. “I don’t know if people recognize how huge that is. We’re not claiming victory. But that’s progress.”

Johnson had good reason to highlight what’s happened in Englewood but also carefully couch that as just one step in dealing with the violence that’s pushed Chicago into an unwelcome national spotlight.

It’s true that the Chicago Police Department’s Englewood District is on pace to see the fewest shootings there since 1998 — with 34 fewer killings this year vs. the same span last year.

Yet this past week Chicago logged its 600th killing so far this year — a grim milestone the city has reached only twice in an entire year since 2003.

And violent crime citywide this year has fallen only slightly since last year, when 780 people were killed in Chicago — the most the city has seen in any year since the mid-1990s, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis that found:

• The 604 killings in Chicago this year through Thursday were 86 fewer than in the same period last year — a 12 percent decline.

• Though some police districts have seen big drops, the number of reported incidents of violent crime citywide is down just 1 percent so far in 2017.

• The number of aggravated batteries — a category that includes shootings that don’t result in death — is down 9 percent, a total of 5,922.

• The city has seen a 12 percent increase in criminal sexual assault, with 1,780 such assaults reported to police — the largest increase in any category of violent crime.

• The number of robberies across the city is about the same as in 2016, with 10,170 recorded as of mid-November, according to police statistics.

“We’re not claiming victory,” Supt. Eddie Johnson says of the drop in the number of killings in Englewood. “But that’s progress.” | Fran Spielman / Sun Times

But, as Johnson pointed out, there have been signs of improvement. Police officials say 18 of the city’s 22 police districts have seen a reduction in shootings compared to this time last year, leading to 734 fewer people shot across the city.

A year ago, the Englewood District had seen one of the city’s steepest increases in murders, with 86 killings — nearly 50 more than in 2015 — and more than 300 shootings.

In the first 10½ months of 2017, the South Side district has seen 45 killings — down from 79 in the same period in 2016.

Sunni Powell says the difference is noticeable. Powell operates Powell’s Barbershop at 63rd and May. In May, a gunman stepped just inside the door of his barbershop and opened fire on two men who were waiting for haircuts. One was killed, the other wounded.

Still, Powell says of the violence in the neighborhood: “Last year, it was off the hook. This year, I’m not hearing about it nearly as much.”

The Englewood District was the first in the city to get a Strategic Decision Support Center. It’s staffed with data-minded police officers along analysts from the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. They’re tucked into a small room, off the station’s roll-call area, that’s outfitted with massive, wall-mounted monitors that stream video from hundreds of surveillance cameras across the district. Data from police reports and ShotSpotter devices — which can pinpoint the sound of gunshots in seconds — are poured into an algorithm that maps and predicts crime hotspots.

The maps, along with photos of suspects wanted for crimes, are updated and presented to officers at each roll call.

The hotspots are visible on a smartphone app that officers can use in the field. ShotSpotter information is available to officers within seconds after the gunfire. That’s key, says Kenneth Johnson, the Englewood District commander, because about 80 percents of the gunshots detected by ShotSpotter will later get reported via 911 calls.

Along with community outreach, the high-tech efforts are behind the dramatic drop in crime across the district, police officials say.

Englewood District Cmdr. Kenneth Johnson. | James Foster / Sun-Times

“This is what’s happening in real time,” Johnson says. “We now have the ability and technology to get ahead of things.”

The police department has expanded the program to five other districts this year. And it plans to add another six Strategic Decision Support Centers by the end of 2018, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says.

Each of the districts to bring in the new, tech-oriented crime-fighting program has seen a drop in the numbers of killings and shootings this year, police records show.

Though Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says there isn’t enough data yet to say definitively that the tech upgrades are responsible for the downturn in gun violence, “I don’t think there is any other plausible explanation for what we’re seeing.”

The number of homicides in districts outfitted with the centers has fallen collectively by 22 percent so far this year, compared to 1.6 percent in the rest of the city, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. Non-fatal shootings have declined by 27 percent in those districts — versus 18 percent in other parts of the city.

So far this year, Chicago’s drop in gun violence is outpacing the national average. Through the first nine months of the year, major cities across the country have seen a 4 percent drop in murders and a 7 percent decline in nonfatal shootings, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of police chiefs that includes more than 60 of the largest municipal police departments in the country.

Just across the Dan Ryan Expressway from the Englewood District, the police department’s Grand Crossing District has seen 44 murders so far this year — four more than during all of 2016 and more than in any year since 2001.

Last year, though, was an outlier for the Grand Crossing District, which had averaged 25 killings each of the previous three years. The district — bounded by the expressway and Lake Michigan, from 60th Street to 75th Street — is scheduled to get a data center in January.

The murder rate in the Grand Crossing District is 62 per 100,000 people, according to police department data.

In Englewood, even with the decline in killings, the murder rate is still 63 per 100,000 people.

Georgia Jackson mourns with family and friends near Nadia Fish and Chicken at 75th and Coles, where two of her grandsons were among four people shot to death on March 30. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

The murder rate citywide last year rose to nearly 29 killings per 100,000 residents, compared with the nationwide average of just under five per 100,000, according to the FBI.

And violence in Chicago still is on pace to exceed national averages.

Guglielmi said through late Friday, there had been 3,158 shooting victims this year, compared to 3,990 shooting victims in the same period last year, a decrease of about 21 percent.

Englewood is one of four police districts that still have murder rates more than twice as high as the city’s overall murder rate.

The Harrison District on the West Side, which is also equipped with the tech tools, has a murder rate of 85 killings for every 100,000 people. In the Austin District on the West Side, which also has ShotSpotter and a Strategic Decision Support Center, the murder rate is 77 per 100,000 people, according to police data.

Citywide, the police are on pace to to seize more illegal guns — about 7,000 — this year than last year, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Johnson sees that as a positive sign.

“It shows police officers are stopping the right people for the right reasons,” he says.