Chicago’s Homicide Problem Is Skewing National Crime Averages

Crime is actually on a 30-year downswing, but Chicago's gun crisis is so bad you wouldn't know it

People gather for a candlelight vigil against gun violence in Chicago — REUTERS
Sep 19, 2016 at 4:43 PM ET

The good news: America’s crime rate has declined to near-historic lows. The bad news: Chicago’s spike in homicides is so huge that it’s affecting the national average and masking improvements elsewhere.

The gun violence epidemic in Chicago is offsetting crime rate improvements elsewhere in the country. A year of unprecedented homicide in the windy city has made national headlines, perhaps influencing public perceptions and fanning flames set by a certain alarmist presidential candidate.

To hear Donald Trump tell it, crime is out of control, and it’s practically end times in America, particularly if you live in a predominantly black urban area. Some of the blame, naturally, falls on the nation’s immigrants and the current presidential administration, according to Trump.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” he said at the Republican National Convention, specifically calling out “the President’s hometown of Chicago.”

“I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”

While Trump’s message is based on a false premise, many Americans seem to buy into his sentiment. Over 60 percent of Americans believe that crime levels in the U.S. have increased over the course of the past decade. Fearmongering rhetoric aside, it’s not quite as absolute as Trump makes it out to be. According to a new study from the Brennan Center at New York University, 12 of the 30 cities studied are expected to show a decrease in crime by year end. The study says that the nationwide murder rate will likely rise just over 13 percent this year (putting the increase from 2014 at 31.5 percent). Half of the increase in the past year can be attributed to Chicago, deemed a national outlier within the report, with these figures belying the fact that crime rates have hit decades-long lows in most U.S. cities in recent years.

In addition to the current murder spike in Chicago (which may be connected with increases in poverty and gang activity in conjunction with a decrease in police officers), crime in Charlotte, North Carolina, violence in Los Angeles, and murders in Baltimore and Houston are also offsetting overall gains nationwide.

“These findings undercut media reports referring to crime as ‘out of control,’ or heralding a new nationwide crime wave,” the report notes. “But the data do call attention to specific cities, especially Chicago, and an urgent need to address violence there.”

The reality is that “the average person in a large urban area is safer walking on the street today than he or she would have been at almost any time in the past 30 years,” according to report authors. Crime rates for the 30 largest cities remain largely unchanged from last year, and Chicago is the only city to report an increase in murders during both 2015 and 2016.

Chicago’s current state of crisis was first forecast in April when the Chicago Tribune noted that the year’s first quarter was off to the worst start of any year since 1999. As predicted, the warm summer months were especially violent, with a total of 62 deaths occurring over the Fourth of July weekend alone. There were 493 total homicides reported in Chicago in 2015. That total was surpassed before Labor Day weekend in 2016. This year, Brennan Center’s findings suggest that as many as 727 people will be killed in the city by the end of the year.

And for all the doom and gloom Trump describes as he outlines what he sees as a national state of lawlessness, his solutions to fixing Chicago’s very real systemic problems are (unsurprisingly) quite simple. In an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” last month, Trump indicated that by putting “the right people” in charge, he would be able to turn things around in one week’s time.