Chicago Police Say Shooting Deaths Are Declining

After years of shocking gun violence, America’s murder capital may be getting its streets under control.

05.31.13 8:45 AM ET

Chicago seemed the capital of gun violence when 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was killed by a stray round there just days after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration. 

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 02:  A young gril, along with friends and fellow students, participates in a candlelight vigil at Harsh Park in memory of Hadiya Pendleton on February 2, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.  Pendleton, a fifteen-year-old high school honor student, was shot and killed while hanging out with friends on a rainy afternoon under a shelter in the park on January 29.  A $40,000 reward has been raised to help find her killer. Pendleton was the 44th homicide recorded in Chicago for 2013.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scott Olson/Getty

A young woman participates in a candlelight vigil at Harsh Park in memory of Hadiya Pendleton on February 2, 2013, in Chicago.

But even then, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was reorganizing the department and implementing new strategies that would lead to a dramatic reduction in the violence.

The result: a nearly 40 percent drop in the murder rate and a 30 percent drop in shootings over the same period last year. These recent statistics mean 74 lives saved and 206 fewer shooting victims. 

And though McCarthy is careful to call it “progress not victory,” he says the numbers promise to get ever better. He reports that the city is presently on track to post the lowest annual murder rate in more than 50 years.

McCarthy detailed this progress and the innovations responsible for it in a 45-minute talk at the City Club in Chicago on May 23. The venue had a particular historical significance because McCarthy is a former deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department. Another former NYPD deputy commissioner, Alexander Piper, was retained by this same civic club back in 1904 to conduct an appraisal of the Chicago police.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 06: Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy stands in front of a small display of guns during a press conference in the Englewood neighborhood on May 6, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. McCarthy said Chicago police confiscate on average more than 130 illegal guns each week. On Saturday about a mile from the police station where McCarthy spoke, 47-year-old Denise Warfield was found stabbed to death inside as abandoned church building. Less than two blocks from Warfield’s murder, three men were shot while walking near the First Mennonite Church of Chicago shortly after midnight Monday morning.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Garry McCarthy stands in front of a small display of confiscated guns during a press conference in the Englewood neighborhood on May 6, 2013.

What became known as the Piper Report found that the Chicago police department was “inefficient ... insufficient” with "practically no discipline.” Piper suggested that “a self-respecting commanding officer, be he inspector, captain, or sergeant, would hesitate to take his pay check if he considered the character of duty he permits the men under him to perform.”

“It is not necessary or me to tell you that you have practically no protection on your streets,” Piper continued.

More than a century later, McCarthy appeared before the club to describe a department that is on the way to doing as much as the police possibly can in the face of societal ills that are beyond the power of any law-enforcement agency to remedy.

“While we’re accountable for policing crimes, we’re not in control of some things that cause it, like poverty, education, or the breakup of the family unit,” he observed.

He noted that the present drop in crime in Chicago had come despite the biggest gang problem in the country. He allowed "this is going to sound a little bit scary” when he reported the number of especially hardcore violent criminals the department had identified. 


And then there was the continuing influx of so many illegal guns that the Chicago police seize more than any other city.

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 31:  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as Police Superintendant Garry McCarthy discusses a plan to reassign 200 police officers from administrative duties back to patrol duties during a press conference on January 31, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago has been faced with a rising murder rate largely attributed to an increase in gang related violence. Last year the city had more than 500 murders. The city has had more than 40 murders in January 2013, surpassing the total for January 2012.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“We’ve up against it, folks,” McCarthy said. “We’re drinking from a fire hose.”

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He reported that Chicago cops have been recovering illegal guns at nine times the rate of their counterparts in New York—nearly three times the number of weapons in a city one third the size. And he knows the New York cops to be the equal of the cops in Chicago.

“We’re not better at getting them,” he said of the guns. “There’s just that many more.”

He added, “Every one of those guns we take, it's an armed confrontation … our men and women putting themselves in harm's way. They don’t come up to us and tell us, ‘I’ve got a gun.’”

The cops continue risking all even though when they arrest someone for gun possession, Illinois law deems it to be a felony no more serious than possession of untaxed cigarettes or a bag designed to thwart store anti-shoplifting sensors.

“Are you kidding me?” McCarthy said. “Where’s the priority?”

McCarthy reported that a mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession might have prevented 72 recent murders. 

“Including the murder of Hadiya Pendleton,” he said, the accused gunman in that case having been free on probation for gun possession.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 13:  Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy holds a press conference to announce his department had seized more than 2,500 illegal firearms in 2013 on May 13, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Three people were shot and killed and at least six others were wounded in gun violence in the city this past weekend.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scott Olson/Getty

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy held a press conference to announce his department has so far confiscated more than 2,500 illegal firearms this year, May 13, 2013.

Part of the Chicago Police Department’s recent progress in such daunting circumstances can be attributed to principles that McCarthy learned in his 25 years with the NYPD. McCarthy was a captain during the revolution in policing of the mid-1990s, when Commissioner Bill Bratton and his resident genius, Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple, transformed the NYPD from a reactive to proactive department and cut crime nearly in half in 26 months. 

“There was a time when academics and some police departments in the country thought there was nothing we could do about crime other than show up after it happens, take a report, and do an investigation,” McCarthy told the club. “[Bratton] changed the way the NYPD and policing is done across the country, probably forever.”

McCarthy implemented these strategies when he himself became a deputy commissioner. He also devised some of his own, notably using rookies fresh out of the academy to walk foot posts in locations that a three-year analysis translated to computerized pin maps showed to be the most crime prone.

“Putting cops on the dots,” McCarthy said. 

He had gone on to become the police commissioner in Newark, New Jersey, when he got the call two years ago from Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel asking if he was interested in running the Chicago Police Department. McCarthy flew in for an interview and his plane landed late. Emanuel is not a guy who likes to be kept waiting.

“I ran through the airport like O.J. before he was a criminal,” McCarthy recalled.

The meeting was at a nearby hotel and McCarthy entered to see Emanuel on a cellphone. Emanuel paused to speak his first words to the man who would become his new top cop.

“Dude, you’re right out of central casting.”

Emanuel then returned to his call.  He and McCarthy afterward spoke for an hour and 45 minutes. They both envisioned a police department that knocked down crime while being embraced by the community as a protector rather than as an occupying army. 

“He said, ‘OK, we’ve got a shared vision. You tell me how to do it,’” McCarthy recalled.

The cop, who indeed looks like he is right out of central casting, surprised nobody by pursuing aggressive crime-busting methods that are measured by statistics. But he also embraced progressive principles that place importance not just on what the police do, but on how they do it. These include the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy put forth by Tracey Meares of Yale. The underlying idea is that police actions have to be viewed as both justified and fair. 

“We can engage the community while at the same time reducing crime,” McCarthy told the club.

He emphasized the importance of a key capacity in his approach to police work.

“Being able to walk and chew gum.”

Before he could implement the new strategies, McCarthy had to reorganize the department itself. He began hiring civilians to free up cops on administrative assignments. He disbanded some specialized citywide units, assigning the cops to local commands. 

"Having the same officer on the same beat every single day and then being held accountable for everything that happens,” McCarthy said. “They will know the good kids from the bad kids. You stop hearing, ‘Why are you stopping my son?’ You know who the criminals are.”

He went on to say that when a beat cop does stop a kid, he has to keep in mind the impression he is making.

“Every single time that you have that interaction you have a teachable moment, and the question becomes, what it is that we’re teaching?” McCarthy said. 

He also placed a high priority on “depoliticizing” the department. He cited a politically connected cop who had received a series of supposedly “merit” promotions until he became commander of one of the toughest districts in the city.

“And that district exploded,” McCarthy said. “It wasn’t fair to the individual and it wasn’t fair to the community. And we’re talking about people being murdered.”

He announced a principle that would have been revolutionary under earlier regimes.

“Meritorious promotions are now meritorious if you can believe it,” he said.

He reported that he personally interviewed every candidate for all such promotions and that 21 of the 22 present district commanders were selected by him through that process. They start in the slower districts and progress to the busiest ones. He considers this the most important position in the department.

“We’ve given them the authority and the accountability,” McCarthy said

McCarthy implemented CompStat as devised by Maple, in which commanders periodically appear along with a computerized map to explain what they were doing about specific crimes and patterns. And McCarthy stuck to the four basic tenets that Maple had first written down on a napkin at Elaine’s nightspot at the start of the policing revolution in New York.

“Timely, accurate intelligence … effective tactics … quick response … relentless follow-up and assessment,” McCarthy recited.

Timely intelligence was proving key in combating the gang problem, where many of the shootings are retaliatory. McCarthy had his cops conduct a ”gang audit,” identifying each member and which gangs might be in conflict. 

"We charted out the turfs that they call their own—I’m not willing to say they own a turf,” McCarthy reported.

When there was a gang-related shooting, the cops could now predict where a retaliatory shooting was likely to occur and get there first. McCarthy also continued gang “call-ins” practiced before his tenure, where members are summoned to a meeting with law enforcement and social services as well as people from the community. The members are told that if the shootings continue they will be subject to more heat than they can handle. Community members, including the parents of murdered children, try to convey the personal cost of the violence. Social services offer to help members get jobs.

‘Because that's always going to be an excuse; ‘I’m only doing what I’m doing because I can’t get a J-O-B,’” McCarthy said,

In describing the efforts against narcotics, McCarthy began by saying that the war on drugs has been a failure.

“We put kilos on the table, we put up organizational charts, we declare victory, we walk away, and then somebody else is selling narcotics on that corner before we even finish the press conference,” he said.

McCarthy said that in the absence of being able to rid the city of drug dealers, he is seeking to teach them that violence is against their self-interest. The lesson begins whenever there is a shooting at a drug location. Undercover officers move in to make buys and then busts. Uniformed cops then occupy the spot.

“We shut down their market,” McCarthy said. “They don’t make any money. We train them it’s bad for business.”

At the same time, various city services are summoned to clean the street, paint over graffiti, and fix potholes and street lamps. The police only then begin to slowly withdraw, having fulfilled what McCarthy views as the department’s mission.

“Reduce crime and increase quality of life for the residents of the city,” he said.

He noted that he had not initially been able to pursue quality of life violations in Chicago because such low-level illegalities had until recently been classified as civil violations.

“A civil remedy for a criminal offense,” McCarthy said. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”   

'The city council had recently changed that, so anyone who just ignores a ticket for gambling and public consumption of alcohol will be subject to arrest. 

At the same time, the police are zeroing in on the 17,000 hardcore criminals. McCarthy said that his father also had been a New York cop and had advised him when he became one that the secret was to go up to the biggest guy on the block and “beat the crap out of him.”

“I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to try something different,’” McCarthy recalled. “But, at the end of the day, I’m using my dad’s philosophy here.”

McCarthy’s cops identified 470 among the 17,000 who have the highest likelihood of either committing murder or being murdered.

“We’re going after them,” McCarthy said. “We call it hot people policing.”

As all these strategies are coming together and the numbers get better overall, there remain tough days, such as Wednesday, when four people were shot to death and 11 others were wounded in a 12-hour period.

But there were still those 74 fewer murder victims and 283 fewer shooting victims than if things had just kept going as they had been. And the dude who is proving to be from much more than central casting continues to make Chicago into a city of hope despite the gangs and guns.