Fact-check: McCarthy’s claims on reining in city’s murder rate don’t ring true
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In his bid for mayor, Garry McCarthy highlights his record as the city’s one-time police superintendent, comparing crime in those years to a surge in violence that occurred after he was fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel amid fallout from the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald.
Last month, we rated Half True a claim McCarthy made about shootings by police overall plunging under his leadership.
In a recent TV ad, McCarthy invokes yet again his four-plus years at the helm of the Chicago Police Department.
“You might not remember, but when I was superintendent, violent crime in Chicago was down, gun arrests were up. We had the lowest murder rates in a generation,” McCarthy says in the ad. “How did we do it? A cutting edge-anti gang plan that combined community policing with data to track gang activity. We met with families touched by gang violence and attacked the problem from the inside. As mayor, I’ll rededicate us to those smart principles and make Chicago safe again.”
To reinforce those claims, the ad flashes citations from news clips across the screen as he speaks. But the articles don’t completely reinforce McCarthy’s spoken claims. One, a New York Times article titled “Monthly Killings are Down to a 40-Year Low in the City,” was published in 2002, nearly a decade before McCarthy arrived in Chicago from the East Coast. It referred to murders in New York City, not Chicago. That discrepancy prompted us to dig deeper into the rest of the ad.
Ups and downs
First, it’s important to note there is no such thing as a ‘good’ murder rate. One life lost is too many. Yet McCarthy’s central premise is that he has a record of making the grim tally less so, accomplishing a historic turnaround at the Chicago Police Department that left the city safer than it had been for years.
In two of the roughly four and half years McCarthy served as superintendent — 2013 and 2014 — the total number of murders in Chicago did fall to a level not seen since 1965, department records show. The problem is those years were bookended by two others under McCarthy in which murders spiked.
It’s also worth noting that a Chicago Magazine investigation raised questions about whether data manipulation drove down official murder statistics in 2013 and 2014 on McCarthy’s watch, a claim he has disputed.
McCarthy’s first full year running CPD was 2012. It saw a surge in violence that critics at the time said tracked closely with his decision to disband large specialized teams of officers that had been deployed to swarm areas when violence erupted and keep it from getting out of hand. That surge continued into 2013 with an especially deadly January but then eased significantly after McCarthy essentially reintroduced the very saturation team strategy he had abandoned.
McCarthy also uses the term “murder rate,” which often gets used interchangeably with actual murders but is not the same thing. The rate is a reflection of how many murders a city logs per 100,000 residents, and since Chicago has a much smaller population than it did decades ago lower numbers of actual murders don’t necessarily translate into record-low rates.
Historical crime data gathered by the FBI show that McCarthy would be correct — though not by much — if he had confined his claim about the lowest murder rates in a generation to 2013 and 2014. The rates for those years — 15.3 per 100,000 people in 2013 and 15.2 the next year — were indeed lower than they had been in the previous 28 years but still fell just slightly below the 15.5 rate for Chicago in 2004, when murders began a noticeable series of annual plunges.
In 2012 under McCarthy, however, the murder rate stood at 18.5 per 100,000 residents, higher than the years leading up to his appointment. In 2015, when he ran the department for all but the last few weeks, it jumped again to 17.5. The following year, with McCarthy gone, it jumped more than 60 percent to 28.1.
The FBI data also make clear that the decline in city murders and murder rates during those two years under McCarthy was likely a continuation of a trend that began in the early 1990s and accelerated significantly in 2004. Other U.S. cities experienced similar reductions over the same time frame.
A McCarthy spokesman pointed to a slice of the same FBI data when we asked for an explanation of the candidate’s claims. However, the numbers the campaign provided us only reached back to 2005 — hardly a generation’s worth and partially obscuring the long-term pattern of decline the city had experienced.
McCarthy said, “we had the lowest murder rates in a generation,” pointing to his strategy as police superintendent for combating gang violence as the reason for the decline.
During two of McCarthy’s four-plus years with the department, murder rates did fall to a level not seen in decades. But violent crime had been dropping steadily in Chicago for years before that, tracking a national trend.
McCarthy also presided over two years in which murders spiked, and critics at the time said his crime-fighting policies were at least partly to blame.
His statement cherry-picks statistics and ignores the broader historical context of crime in Chicago. We rate it Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking service has teamed up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.
Campaign ad, Garry McCarthy for Mayor, Jan. 15, 2019
“Did police shootings plunge under McCarthy’s leadership?” PolitiFact Illinois, Dec. 23, 2018
“Monthly Killings Are Down To a 40-Year Low in the City,” New York Times, March 2, 2002
“Chicago Crime Reached ‘Historic Low’ in 2014: Police,” NBC Chicago, Jan. 1, 2015
Annual statistical reports, Chicago Police Department
“The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates,” Chicago Magazine, April 7, 2014
“Chicago Was Nation’s Murder Capital in 2012,” NBC Chicago, Sept. 19, 2013
“A city in crisis seeks answers,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 15, 2013
“Street violence spurs shift in police strategy,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 31, 2013
FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, accessed Jan. 23, 2019
“Murder tally plunges to 40-year low,” Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 1, 2004
Chicago’s murder rate at its lowest since 1965,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 25, 2008
“Chicago murder rate the lowest since 1965,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 1, 2011
Report: 48 Years of Crime in Chicago, Yale University Institute for Social and Policy Studies, 2013
Email interview: McCarthy spokesman John Davis, Jan. 24, 2019