Is Chicago safer, or is it a mirage?

Chicago has been almost the one-word association for U.S. violence over the past 30 months, but their 2013 data seems promising: crime’s down 16 percent and homicides are down 18 percent. New York, Houston, and Los Angeles also saw pretty significant drops in 2013. Are our big cities getting safer, or is something else at play?

Start with the base numbers. In 2012, there were 503 homicides in Chicago; in 2013, there were 415. Chicago police say it’s because of a few factors, notably “gang audits” that focus on individual gang members and ‘beefs’ that are percolating, as well as “impact zones” (which is exactly what you’d assume: high-crime zones that need more attention). But Arthur Lurigio of Loyola University, a criminal justice professor, has another idea:

“The unusual spike in 2012 was attributable to a confluence of factors that came together that we are not likely to see in subsequent years,” Professor Lurigio says. They include: An unusually warm winter and spring, and an “unprecedented gang fragmentation” that increased tensions in the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Since then, Lurigio says, gang structures have tightened so that there is more control of the streets.

Lurigio notes that if you compare 2011 to 2013, instead of 2012 to 2013, the drop is a little under five percent — so essentially, 2012 is a complete outlier in the data and the drop isn’t as significant as you’d think. Still, 415 murders would be the lowest since 1965 in the city.

This is a good read, via NBC, on some of the key things Chicago is doing to curb crime. They actually have a policy that’s a nod to sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick and his book Minority Report, where agents eliminate criminals prior to them “breaking bad.” Chicago’s also moving more admin cops to the streets, although one criticism you will see in different reporting is that, based on the amount of “impact zones,” rookie cops are being placed into those situations without proper training or context.

Not everyone believes the changes are real:

My two cents, for what it’s worth: I think Chicago should be applauded for its efforts to curb crime. It’s doing a tremendous job in the face of a very broken system (modern-day Chicago has all aspects of what The Wire so beautifully depicted for five years). The El Chapo connection is serious, legitimate shit and has essentially created a “Heroin Highway” off the Dan Ryan Expressway. (El Chapo is a powerful man in this world.) The numbers are much better, and I doubt it’s “juking the stats” (another nod to The Wire); I think the context of 2012 was so insane, numbers-wise, that anything would be a return to semi-normalcy. Is it safe? For most people, yes. In some areas, not even remotely. The twin engines of failed education and allure of drugs (+money associated with) will continue, but it appears Chicago police procedures have helped — even if the percentage decline doesn’t quite match up with the notion of real blood on the streets.

Ted Bauer