CHICAGO » A year after this city drew new attention for soaring gun violence and gang bloodshed, creating a political test for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in President Barack Obama’s hometown, Chicago has witnessed a drop in shootings and crime. Killings this year have dipped to a level not seen since the early 1960s.
So far in 2013, Chicago homicides, which outnumbered slayings in the larger cities of New York and Los Angeles last year, are down 34 percent compared with the same period in 2012. As of Sunday night, 146 people had been killed in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city — 76 fewer than the same stretch in 2012 and 16 fewer than in 2011, a year that was among the lowest for homicides during the same period in 50 years.
In recent months, as many as 400 officers a day have been dispatched to just 20 small zones deemed the city’s most dangerous. The police say they are tamping down retaliatory shootings between gangs by using a comprehensive analysis of the city’s tens of thousands of suspected gang members, the turf they claim and their rivalries. The police also are focusing on more than 400 people they have identified as having associations that make them the most likely to be involved in a murder, as a victim or an offender.
As Emanuel, who has said he intends to run for re-election, begins the second half of his first term, it is unclear whether the months of lessened violence will reflect a lasting trend, particularly given a spring of rainy, chilly weather here that some experts say may have kept people off the streets and contributed to the relative calm.
Chicago is not unique in its experience this year: Homicides have also decreased in New York, by more than 22 percent as of early this month, and by more than 17 percent in Los Angeles.
"It’s good, but not good enough," Emanuel said in an interview of the city’s improving homicide statistics. He added that a parent had approached him in one of the neighborhoods now saturated with police officers, saying that she had started to feel comfortable allowing her child to walk to school. "That to me is the biggest, most important, most significant measure – that a mother feels comfortable and confident enough where she didn’t in past years to have her child walk to school."
Critics question whether the city can continue to pay for the added police presence. By the end of April, $31.9 million of the $38 million set aside in the city budget for police overtime for the year had been spent, city records show.
Leaders of the police union, who describe some of the current efforts as "smoke and mirrors," caution that the dismal statistics of 2012 are being used to paint a falsely upbeat picture of 2013, and say they doubt such intense policing efforts are financially sustainable in any major city without expanding the size of the force.
"It seems a little soon to know whether this is a long-term trend," said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. "I think everyone in Chicago hopes it is very much a trend. I wouldn’t pop the champagne yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed."
In some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods — even those where statistics suggest clear improvement — some residents say they feel as unsafe as ever, and worry that the closing this fall of the largest number of elementary schools in recent memory may force schoolchildren to venture down blocks controlled by gangs to get to new schools.
Shootings of children 16 and younger have dropped by 46 percent compared with last year, but the details of some — a 9-year-old shot Wednesday as he rode in his mother’s car; a 15-year-old who the police say had gang ties killed about four blocks from Obama’s Chicago home in April; a 6-month-old, Jonylah Watkins, fatally shot in her father’s arms in March — remain jarring.
"If you ask me, nothing has changed," said Magnolia Howard, who lives not far from a police station in Englewood, an impoverished neighborhood where the authorities say overall crime has dropped 19 percent this year. "I’m still scared to let the kids play in front of the house."
More than 500 people were killed in Chicago last year, many of them young black men shot to death amid the hundreds of gangs that flourish in the neighborhoods mainly south and west of downtown. As in many of the nation’s biggest cities, killings in Chicago have decreased significantly since the 1990s, when the annual death toll sometimes exceeded 900. But the violence of 2012 — a 16 percent increase in killings over the year before, even as overall crime in the city decreased — drew national attention to Chicago.
In February, even Obama spoke of the violence here during a trip home, and his wife, Michelle, attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago high school student who was fatally shot in January, only days after attending inauguration festivities for the president.
Of the violence, Emanuel frenetically ticked off solutions — he frequently says there is no single answer — including more money for after-school activities, summer jobs, tougher enforcement of truancy laws and curfews, efforts to raise money from private sources to work with youths ($41 million has been pledged since February) and, yes, police work.
Rookies are being assigned to regular foot patrols in the hot spots – the locations account for just 3 percent of the city’s geographical base but 20 percent of the worst crimes — and officers are being paid overtime. Eventually, the city says half the officers in the hot spots will be there working regular hours, not overtime. But if the price tag is high for the changing police tactics, Emanuel says this is no "either or" issue, and the city will find a way to pay for it.
"It’s sustainable," Emanuel said, "because it’s actually bringing the results I want to see."
In May, a poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV suggested that Emanuel’s approval rating related to crime was about the same as a year before, at 45 percent of voters polled, though the numbers who said they disapproved of his handling of crime had grown to 47 percent from 34 percent.
Last week, at the end of a weekly meeting of top officials and district commanders inside Police Headquarters, Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy took the floor, urging those assembled to keep the improvements going. Some of the tactics are not unlike those adopted in New York, officials say, where murders in 2012 dropped to their lowest level in over 40 years.
"Two years ago, I honestly had the feeling that people didn’t think that we could really do what we’re doing right now as far as reducing crime," the superintendent said. "Crime’s down 22 percent from two years ago. That’s really significant, folks," he said, adding: "That’s like 6,000 less victims of crime. Think about it. Get it."
The numbers offer little comfort to those like Jonathan Watkins, who remembers changing the diaper of his baby, Jonylah, in the passenger seat of a minivan parked on the South Side just before gunshots tore through his car window in March. The authorities say the bullets were likely meant for Watkins, who acknowledged old ties to a gang and three previous gunshot wounds before the bullets that hit him and Jonylah that night.
"She’s upstairs looking down on me and I can’t just do the same thing I was doing," Watkins, 29, said quietly the other day, recalling how Jonylah had cried, then seemed to look right at him as the shots came.
Looking ahead, many here worry about challenges like the arrival of summer, followed by a school year that will have students from nearly 50 elementary schools attending different ones as part of a consolidation plan. In preparation for the school closings, officials are drawing up safe routes where workers will stand watch near the remaining schools, an expansion of Chicago’s already elaborate "safe passage" plan for school children that is expected to cost more than $15 million next year.
On a recent morning on the far South Side, "safe passage" workers, wearing neon vests and clutching cellphones (ready to dial 911 if need be) lined street corners as students filtered in.
"Everything has calmed down a lot — with all of us out here, with the police out here, with the school staff out here," said Dorothy Washington, one of the workers, who called out "good morning" to all who passed.
Not far away, Cynthia Massie, the development coordinator at a community center, sounded less sure. At her home the other night, she said she heard some 15 gunshots ring out, then no sirens, nothing. "It means no one got hit," she said. "We hear gunshots all the time."