This is a tale of two cities and murder.
As the sun rose Sunday, New York City hit a remarkable milestone, recording just 193 murders in the first six months of the year. In that same span, more than 250 murders were recorded in Chicago—a city just one third as large.
It is the first full crisis of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s term in office, and the cause of growing national concern. More than 40 people were shot there on Memorial Day weekend alone, and 10 of them died. In June, the victims ranged in age from 75-year-old Donald Ellens to 7-year-old Heaven Sutton.
“This is not about crime. This is about values,” Emanuel said about Sutton, who was killed by a stray bullet in the back while selling candy outside of her home.
But finally, the murder rate is about crime, and criminals, and while New York has been at the vanguard of a nationwide drop in crime, Chicago has become the exception that proves the rule.
“Until this spring, Chicago looked quite typical of all the national crime trends, including its neighbor New York. But that's been interrupted and it's been interrupted big time,” says Berkeley Law professor Franklin Zimring.
“The police say it’s gangs. That's both helpful and extremely mysterious. Because there is no sense that Chicago has a gang profile which is vastly different from that of Los Angeles, and yet [the murder rate in] Los Angeles has continued [to be] low.”
Chicago hasn’t seen murders at this pace since 2003, when the city suffered 283 homicides by the end of June, and 601 over the year. The violence that began to explode in neighborhoods across this city this spring represents a 36 percent increase in murder over the same stretch of last year.
In contrast, New York City has seen a 17 percent decrease from last year, putting the city on pace to record fewer than 400 homicides this year—which would be the fewest since reliable records began being kept in 1963. To put this in perspective, in 1990 a record 2,245 people were murdered here.
New York City’s historic success comes at a time of increased critical scrutiny of the NYPD and its commissioner, Ray Kelly. Last month, the NAACP held a silent street protest to draw attention to its demand that the controversial "stop and frisk" policy be ended. In addition, there have been allegations of widespread padding of crime statistics.
But there is no way to obscure the number of murders. It is objective data, as irrefutable as a body left in a pool of blood on the street. Under Kelly’s leadership, the NYPD has managed to do more with less, reducing murder rates with a smaller police force and raising questions about just how low crime can go in a city of 8 million people.
The fact that homicide rates in New York and most big cities have continued to decline during the Great Recession is itself a notable refutation of the "root cause" theory of crime long cherished by liberals —namely, that crime was an inevitable byproduct of tough economic times and income inequality, solvable only by welfare-state schemes. It turns out that proactive quality-of-life policing, stemming from the Broken Windows theory, ultimately does far more to reduce violence and save lives, especially in inner-city neighborhoods. The current Harlem renaissance is Exhibit A in this national evolution.
But Chicago’s murder spree defies that trend. In addition to gang violence, some have blamed the unseasonably hot weather in the Windy City this spring—but it’s been hot all over. In an attempt to stem the violence, Chicago recently announced a $1 million grant to hire 40 “interrupters” from the CeaseFire organization, which includes ex-gang members, to try and mediate the gang conflicts that have sprayed multiple neighborhoods with gunfire. Local columnists have even asked President Obama to get involved with his adopted hometown’s travails.
Chicago is a tragic outlier to a heartening national trend exemplified by New York City. Once synonymous with street crime and senseless violence, New York’s pioneering policing techniques—begun under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and extended by Mayor Mike Bloomberg—have proven broadly applicable.
Tens of thousands of people are alive today who would not be if the gun violence of the early 1990s continued unabated. The violence in Chicago demands our attention because of the progress made elsewhere—each individual human life deserves its due. The numbers can’t outpace the names.
Most important, we now know that street violence is not inevitable—it can be reined in. For Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago, this is a time of testing while the nation watches.