CHICAGO — Gun violence this past weekend in Chicago injured 54 people and claimed 12 lives. Sadly, bloody weekends are practically a cyclical occurrence in Chicago during late summer and early fall.
In August 2017, 63 people were shot and eight killed in one weekend. In 2016, 59 were shot and 17 killed the weekend before Halloween. In July 2015, 40 were shot and eight were killed in one weekend. Accompanying that pattern of violence is the spurt of national outrage and partisan criticism that follows.
“Chicago murders are direct result of one party Democratic rule for decades,” tweeted Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s lead lawyer and a former mayor of New York, in response to the tragedy. “Policing genius Jerry McCarthy can do for Chicago what I did for NYC. He was one of the architects of Compstat. Slashed homicides over 70%. Tens of thousands of lives saved.”
Mr. Giuliani was referring to Garry McCarthy, a former New York City police commander, former Chicago police superintendent and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s electoral opponent. Mr. McCarthy disavowed the president’s and Mr. Giuliani’s politics while journalists quickly fact-checked Mr. Giuliani’s false claim in a similar batch of tweets that there had been 63 murders.
The political discourse around gun violence — much like that around climate change — relies on data and would greatly benefit from more careful use of it.
Crime in the United States is down roughly 50 percent since 1990. Both survey research and police statistics reported to the F.B.I. show the trend. It has gone down under Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government who use a wide variety of approaches to enforcement.
It went down in Chicago, a city that hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1931. It went down in Oklahoma City, which hasn’t had a Democratic mayor since 1987.
A few major cities have seen an upswing in violent crime since 2015, specifically Chicago in 2016, but the long-term trend has held and isn’t attributable to any single policy or party.
But American politicians fighting over the issue often fail to effectively or accurately talk about that data. Concentrated bursts of violence take over the narrative and are exploited for political points. Weekends like the one Chicago just saw are heartbreaking, and they speak to the deep social problems here.
Yet they aren’t, in and of themselves, a trend any more than a particularly destructive winter storm represents the overriding trend in rising global temperatures. Crime is more like weather, influenced by the ebb and flow of individual, isolated phenomena but not defined by them and rarely directly controlled by them.
That doesn’t stop politicians of different stripes from either declaring data trends that in fact don’t exist or finding easy answers to explain those that do.
In 2015, Mayor Emanuel, a Democrat, blamed police officers’ becoming “fetal” for an uptick in violent crime, stating that “what happened post-Baltimore, what happened post-Ferguson is having an impact.” However, while Chicago’s violent crime was about 2.5 percent higher in 2015 than in 2014, it was still lower than in any year from 2001 to 2013.
This week, the Democratic candidate for governor, J.B. Pritzker, blamed Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget cuts for the violence: “It’s true that our (increased) violence around the state of Illinois, not just the city of Chicago, has been almost concurrent with the defunding of those services that people rely upon.”
The cuts may be troubling to local progressives, and crime at any level is regrettable. Still, Mr. Pritzker’s statement is a broad brush considering violent crime in Illinois is down this decade compared with both the 2000s and the 1990s — a period of interchanging party rule.
Mr. Giuliani has championed technology-assisted law-enforcement systems like Compstat, pioneered by officials like Mr. McCarthy, which indeed may have had a modest impact in improving crime in New York City during the 1990s and 2000s.
Such systems make it easier for the police to see granular trends in crime and have the potential to help law enforcement deploy resources more efficiently. Still, granular trends are not overarching ones. During Mr. McCarthy’s tenure in Chicago, from 2011 to 2015, yearly homicides bounced from the low to mid-400s during most years to over 500 in 2012.
And as reporting on Chicago’s error-riddled gang database shows, the Chicago Police Department’s own data is far from perfect. Nor has the technology been able to stop a police misconduct problem that is as deep and intractable as gun violence on the street.
Hard-to-control factors such as the widespread availability of guns imported from other states may make it difficult for any politician, whatever the party affiliation, to have a large impact on Chicago’s violence problems.
We should be skeptical of any claim that a particular party or policy will solve crime. We should be skeptical of the idea that federal intervention could do the same. But to make sure we’re having a conversation anchored in reality, we should also demand greater transparency from police departments regarding their staffing, databases and resources.
And we need more transparency from the court system. In places like Chicago, basic answers about dismissal rates, judicial patterns, bond amounts, jail stays and incarceration are crucial to understanding crime yet frustratingly hard to obtain despite recent progress.
Big-picture trends are cold comfort for those affected by violence. A 30-year downward trend line won’t bring back someone’s son or brother who was lost last weekend.
Yet when politicians cherry-pick isolated events and numbers to claim that only their party or ideology can solve these problems, they disrespect those hurt and killed by violent crime and create obstacles to evidence-driven discourse.
David Eads is a journalist based in Chicago with a focus on visual and data-based stories. He has worked for The Chicago Tribune, NPR and other outlets.
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