For once, Chicago has beaten New York in a competition that the Windy City had no desire to win. Chicago ended 2012 with more homicides than the Big Apple. No cheers for that.
Chicago ended the year with a total of 506 murders, compared to only 418 in New York, its fewest since it started keeping reliable statistics in 1963. It was also the first time that Chicago topped 500 since 2008, when President Barack Obama’s election brought renewed national attention to his hometown’s crime statistics, particularly among conservatives.
Many gun lovers, for example, see Chicago’s bad fortune with firearms as a rebuke to gun control policies pushed by President Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff.
If only the issue were that simple. In fact, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently pointed out, New York state has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation. Nevertheless, illegal guns will keep finding their way into the wrong hands as long as people can go to the suburbs or another state for their weapons.
Pardon the bad pun, but there is no simple magic-bullet solution to big-city crime woes, although everyone has their favorites. Here’s mine: Let’s change the way that we as a society view crime fighting.
Too much of our thinking about surges in homicide statistics and other violent crimes is based on outdated models. Instead of waging “war” against homicides, we need to treat such reoccurring waves as an epidemic.
Gone are the huge street gangs and drug gang networks that I used to cover as a young Chicago reporter in the 1970s and ‘80s. Today’s large street gangs have been broken up, much like Tony Soprano’s mafia under pressure from federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act laws.
Instead, academic and law enforcement experts agree that violent crime has gone in the direction that today’s newspaper planning editors like to call “hyperlocal.” The old “supergangs” who fought deadly turf wars over lucrative street-corner drug markets have fragmented and dispersed into hundreds of harder-to-track street “cliques” using firearms to settle petty beefs.
The old metaphors of military intelligence and assault work fine in waging war against well-organized gangs with known networks and hierarchies. Violence by hundreds of small street-corner cronies is frustratingly random and hard to anticipate without close-up knowledge and personal associations with the community.
The metaphor of violence as an epidemic is often associated with Dr. Gary Slutkin, a University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist who, after battling the spread of diseases in Africa, applied his knowledge to the virus of violence in Chicago streets. His work led to the creation of CeaseFire, now known Cure Violence, an organization that puts “violence interrupters” into neighborhood “hot spots” to interrupt violence that feeds more violence.
Among other differences with New York, Chicago demolished its high-crime, low-income public housing highrises — including the Robert Taylor Homes, the nation’s biggest. Getting rid of what many called “highrise ghettoes” of concentrated poverty, gangs and crime was beneficial, but it displaced thousands of residents into some of the same neighborhoods that have experienced the greatest rise in homicides.
“Much of that violence from the highrises has spilled out into the neighborhoods, where it attracts more attention by the rest of the city,” said Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here and co-producer of an award-winning PBS Frontline documentary, The Interruptors, about Crossfire. “They’ve eliminated those highrise pockets of extreme crime, yet there are still places in the neighborhoods where the knowledge of violence feels very oppressive, even to those who have not experienced it directly.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy has called, among other ideas, for stiffer penalties for crimes committed with a gun.
Even the National Rifle Association, the politically powerful lobby that seldom sees a new gun law that it likes, has supported such moves that don’t penalize lawful gun owners.
But more work also needs to be done on the ground by police, street workers, churches and other community leaders to deal with the environment that generates the virus of violence — before it spreads.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.