Rahm Emanuel Out of Excuses for Chicago’s Murder Rate

Since Rahm Emanuel won a landslide victory to become mayor of Chicago in 2011, he has touted the city as “world class.

Chicago is America’s third-largest city, and is one of its three largest convention cities. It has the nation’s second busiest airport. It has highly rated cultural offerings: the Chicago Symphony,  a vibrant local theater industry, great museums. But in one area Chicago has clearly staked its claim to number one.

In 2012, Chicago recorded 505 murders. That may not sound all that bad, since in some years in the past two decades the city had over 900 murders (1991, 1992, and 1994). But it looks like a terribly high number when compared to New York (which recorded 414 murders in 2012) or any of the other ten largest cities in America, because Chicago is not only the murder capital of America in terms of experiencing the most murders. It also has, by far, the highest murder rate among America’s ten largest cities.

New York has a population more than three times as large as Chicago’s population: 8.175 million according to the 2010 Census, versus 2.696 million for Chicago. In New York, the number of murders in 2012 equates to 1 in every 19,747 residents. In Chicago, the rate is 1 murder for every 5,338 residents. If 2011 population data were used, the comparison would be even starker, since New York’s population was estimated to have grown by 74,000 from 2010 to 2011, while Chicago’s grew only 11,000 in that period.

If there is one number to think about, it is this: Chicago is 3.7 times more dangerous than New York when it comes to murder, which is obviously the most serious crime with which mayors and their police forces need to be concerned.

If Chicago had New York’s murder rate, there would have been only 137 murders in the Windy City in 2012. On the other hand, if New York had Chicago’s murder rate there would have been 1,531 murders in the Big Apple in 2012.

If the murder rate comparison looks bad, the comparison of shooting statistics looks even worse. Chicago had twice as many shooting victims in 2012 as New York for a city less than a third the size; that means the shooting rate was more than six times higher in Chicago.

In 1990, near the end of the disastrous Dinkins administration, there were over 2,200 murders in New York City. So the number of murders has dropped by 81.6% since then, a remarkable reduction in the most serious crime and a feat unmatched by any other decent-sized city in the country — or for that matter, anywhere in the world for a large city. During the same period, Chicago has seen a drop from 851 to 505, a decline of 40.7%. In 1990, the murder rates in Chicago and New York — two cities with very similar demographic mixes of the population — were comparable. Now Chicago’s murder rate is nearly four times as high as New York’s murder rate.

Forget world class, Rahm. When it comes to murder, Chicago is now in a league with Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

This has all been very embarrassing for Mayor Emanuel. What has made it even worse is that the murder statistics have become a big national story. While New York City achieved the lowest murder total in 50 years in 2012, Chicago had 16% more murders than the year before. Why is Chicago becoming more dangerous while the other cities with which it competes for jobs, tourists, and investments are becoming less so?

In an appallingly terrible article in the New York Times, Monica Davey makes clear she thinks the real issue is not how many murders occur in Chicago, nor whether the murder rate is increasing, nor how the city’s murder rate compares to that of other cities. Rather, the key issue for her is that murders are not evenly distributed within the city.

That is just not fair in her book. Largely white neighborhoods on the white side are described as “Eden-like” as far as safety. Anyone who lives in the city on the north side, as I do, would find that remark comical. The reality is that when the murder rate drops in major cities, the people who benefit the most are minority group members, since they are the ones most often murdered in these cities.

The more than 1,800 fewer murders in New York (comparing the numbers for 1990 and 2012) likely means that more than 1,500  black and Hispanic residents of the city were not murdered in 2012 due to the much lower murder rate. It is likely the case that at least 30,000 residents of New York City today are alive rather than dead due to the cumulative effect over that period of the sharply declining murder rate.

If the New York Times’ primary concern is that there are more blacks and Hispanics murdered than whites in Chicago, then the best solution is to reduce the city’s murder rate. There will still be more blacks and Hispanics murdered than whites. But if the total  murders in Chicago were 137 in a year (the New York City murder rate, in effect) or even double that at 274, it would make a huge difference, even in the comparative numbers of murdered residents segmented by racial or ethnic group.

The mayor of Chicago has offered some fairly lame excuses for the city’s increasing murder rate, and he avoids comparing Chicago to  New York or other large cities where the murder rate is far lower. Naturally, he has thrown out the old standbys for the levels of violence — guns and gangs. Chicago certainly has both, and the gangs are everywhere, including on the north side “Eden.” One explanation offered for the increasing murder rate has been that the gangs have splintered and are fighting more over turf boundaries. But there may be other explanations as well for the soaring gang violence, including the police chief’s abandonment of a strategy that proved very successful in New York and — to a lesser extent — in Chicago in recent years: flooding a zone with more police if violent crime is rising rapidly in that area.

As for guns, Chicago has tough gun laws. One could make an argument that the absence of fathers in much of the South and West side of the city is more statistically related to the rate of violent crime in these communities than the number of guns is.

Was there a surge in the number of guns between 2011 and 2012 in the hardest-hit communities of the city? No one in the mayor’s office has provided evidence of that.

Other cities have had epidemics of gang violence, such as Los Angeles — which once had as high a murder rate as Chicago, but which is now only about half as high. That city seems to have tamed the beast somewhat.

When you are the mayor, your first job is public safety. If people think Chicago is too unsafe to live or to visit, then the mayor’s other initiatives will also fail. I do not pretend to have the answers, but some cities seem to be doing a much better job at public safety than Chicago (stricter sentencing laws seem to be working in California cities), and Chicago may be doing some things that contribute to its gang culture.

Maybe the mayor, never known for his humility, can try to learn from others.