Is Violence Reduction in Chicago Succeeding or Failing?

Chicago Civic Media
5 min readJun 24, 2018
Graphic through 2/17/19 courtesy Hey Jackass Chicago crime monitoring website

By Steve Sewall, Chicago Civic Media. Updated February, 2019. This post stems from our four-part Violence Solution saga beginning with Part I.

To my knowledge, there’s never been a study of the successes and failures of Violence Reduction in Chicago.

That said, the financial costs of violence reduction from a public safety standpoint are clear. Mayoral candidate Bill Daley, in his campaign Crime Plan, states that “We spend billions every year on police, jails, courts, and prisons.”

And when you step back to look at Chicago today, it’s hard not to conclude that the failures of violence reduction greatly outweigh its successes.

As for the successes, they are relative. Gun violence in Chicago was down in 2018 over 2017 by about 25%. Crime in general is down as well. That’s good news and Chicago’s leaders use it to maintain that they are doing a good job.

Still, as the graphic above confirms, a Chicagoan in the midst of the severe winter of 2019 is being shot every 5 hours and murdered every 28.

The fact is that six decades of violence reduction have inured and hardened Chicagoans to wartime levels of violence. Thirty years ago, you’d hear people saying things about City Hall like, “They could stop if they wanted to.” But you don’t hear that today. Numbed Chicagoans now passively accept violence as a hard, unalterable fact of city life, like brutal Chicago winters. There’s nothing you or anyone can do about it except adapt to it. Avoid or minimize the pain.

The most recent development? Recently it’s become clear that no Chicago neighborhood — not even the Gold Coast or the city’s vaunted Magnificent Mile—is safe from violence. And we now routinely hear news stories of violence on Chicago’s mass transit system and shootings on its expressways.

In recent years, Chicago’s leaders and its media (it’s hard to separate the two) have taken to equating gun violence with the larger issue of violence itself.

This equation is faulty. While based on the fact that guns are undeniably responsible for over 85% of all fatalities, it obscures the critical fact that gangs, not guns, are root causes of Chicago’s violence.

Thirty years ago, Chicago equated violence not with guns but with gangs and drugs. The focus on gangs gets us closer to the roots of Chicago’s violence in the rise of heavily-armed, drug-dealing street gangs in the 1960's.

But today, as Sun-Times columnist Phil Kadner observes, it’s become politically correct to ignore an apparent rise in gang membership while asserting that a decline in gun violence equates with decline in violence itself.

Apparent rise in gang membership? Here the picture is murky. As of December, 2018, police listed some 128,000 adults in their gang database, with the total rising to an astounding 196,000 if juveniles are included.

Yet many believe that this number is a huge overcount. It’s shown that young people are listed as gang members, for instance, when a gang tattoo is found on their persons. (It’s well known that many at-risk Chicago youngsters wear tattoos for mere self-protection, just as many arm themselves for this reason.)

But even if the number of gang members is pegged at 100,000, as it was in the 2010 edition of the Chicago Crime Commission’s Gang Book, it would follow that one out of every 27 Chicagoans is a gang member. This points to the idea the reducing gang membership in Chicago may be as important to making Chicago safe as reducing the number of guns in the city.

The confusion about guns and gangs as causes of violence is an instance of a larger, citywide confusion about the nature of public safety: of what it takes to make Chicago a safe city.

Chicago’s harried and abrasive mayor debates leave little time or space for discussions of this topic. And these election-time debates are the only time that most Chicagoans ever get to hear directly from their leaders.

Chicagoans can hear their leaders discussing violence at other times, but only if they can travel to the Loop during working hours and fork over $50 for a ticket to hear them speak to groups like the City Club of Chicago.

In-depth discussions of Chicago’s violence is arguably by design an elitist process, one to which the vast majority of Chicagoans has no access and no input on the assumption that most Chicagoans are either uninterested in such discussions, are incapable of understanding them, or have nothing of value to contribute to them.

This would include the young Chicagoans who suffer most from violence as its victims and, all too often, as its perpetrators after they have recruited by gangs in their early teens or even earlier. But as Mayor Richard M. Daley said in a brief but inspired 1992 speech to a group of high school student leaders, these are precisely the Chicagoans whose understanding of violence is most critical to solving the problem in Chicago.

Chicago over the years has been perfectly to longtime Chicago residents. In a word: Chicago gave up on making itself safe decades ago. In fact, Chicago never tried to make itself safe. It’s tried only make itself less dangerous. And on this score the city has failed disastrously:

  • In the same 1992 speech referred to above, Mayor Richard M. Daley asserted that “Chicago has lost two generations of young people to gangs and drugs.”
  • Daley on this occasion also faulted Chicago’s media for “promoting trouble makers and neglecting problem solvers.” (Remember Robert “Yummy” Sandifer?)
  • Updating Daley’s 1992 count of the human costs of violence: Chicago has now lost a third generation of young people to gangs and drugs and today is fast losing a fourth, with no end in sight to this wartime loss of life.
  • And with no end end in sight its wartime dollar costs:
HuffPost Overview of the 2012 Center for American Progress study

That is the big picture of Chicago’s violence, all too familiar to Chicagoans. Question: is it too late for Chicago to address violence as a city?

Back to “How Chicago Can Make Itself Safer Than New York: Part I”.

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Steve Sewall, Ph.D., is a Chicago educator, media entrepreneur and Director of Chicago Civic Media.



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