Editorial: Chicago’s Gun Violence & Data—What Does it Tell Us?

Data analytics do not always shed the light city leaders hope for with skyrocketing gun violence, but basic numbers can tell you a lot.


People are naturally concerned and want answers when gun violence skyrockets. The number of people shot in Chicago this year reached the 1,000 mark about two months earlier than the past four years, and is up 66 percent from last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper has been tracking the city’s gun violence since 2012. This year’s numbers are of particular concern even for a city whose violence typically outpaces larger cities like New York and Los Angeles.

The Washington Post is also talking about Chicago’s “staggering rise in gun violence and killings.” The nation’s second largest police department is reportedly reeling from low morale after an officer was charged with murder for firing several rounds into the back of 17-year old Laquan McDonald. He was shown in a video released in November 2015 walking away from police with a knife in his hand when he was killed. The Justice Department is investigating and Mayor Rahm Emanuel dismissed the police superintendent and appointed a temporary replacement.

According to the Post, there are many factors that contribute to the city’s elevated violence, including increased gang conflict. Robert M. Lombardo, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago also suggested officers are reacting to the recent protests1.

The officers are just having second thoughts about being aggressive,” said Lombardo.

The Post also reported that while deaths due to gun violence are elevated, the police department—perhaps to save face—reported that March numbers were better than the previous two months because more gun arrests were made.

But the Chicago Police Department has had its share of trouble with data, and I think Lombardo—a former Chicago police officer—is on the right track with his hunch.

A few years ago the department created a heat map of the people most likely to break the law to help predict and prevent crime, but the effort fell flat and the public viewed the tool as racial profiling. At the time, the Tribune reported on a listed individual with no prior arrests. Data in that case didn’t really deliver insight.

Chicago’s gun control laws, according to gun-control opponents that cite the city’s gun homicide data, also do not deliver.

In a separate article, “Gun-control opponents love to cite Chicago,” the Post reported that it’s hard to make a judgment on the efficacy of the city's gun control laws based on its homicide numbers because inconsistencies in data prevent comparing Chicago’s shootings on a per capita basis to other places2.

But very basic numbers do speak volumes about what happens when a police force struggles to maintain its function while in crisis.

The Tribune reported that several officers have indicated they are “less aggressive on the street out of fear that doing even basic police work would get them into trouble,” due to the recent outcry over the McDonald murder. Also since January, officers must fill out detailed reports for every street stop as part of a new state law and agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. That change has officers preparing additional paperwork.

Overall, the Tribune reported that arrests dropped by 32 percent in January from that month the previous year. More staggeringly, street stops have bottomed out—there were only 9,044 investigatory stop reports issued in January, compared to 61,330 stops Chicago police made in January 2015.

We don’t need advanced analytical data to tell us that a reduction in monitoring for a said occurrence leads to a rise in instances of said occurrence. It happens with parents and children that sneak candy. It happens with environmental regulators and plant operators with limiting point-source pollution permits. It happens with police and people who possess guns that they intend to use.

Sources

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/04/02/chicagos-staggering-rise-in-gun-violence-and-killings/

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/10/05/gun-control-opponents-love-to-cite-chicago-so-how-does-it-compare-to-the-rest-of-america/

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