Inside Story America

Is Chicago becoming more deadly?

Murder rates are rising in the city, but while some blame gangs, others suggest failed urban policies are responsible.

For years, the murder rate in Chicago had been decreasing but this year has been different.

“If you look at gun seizures on a per capita basis, the Chicago police department captures … six times the amount of guns that they do in New York City. And … there is relatively easy access to guns, Chicago actually has very stringent gun-safety regulations but many of the surrounding areas do not.

– Harold Pollack, the co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab

Through the end of July, the number of murders in the US’ third-largest city was more than 25 per cent higher than it was during that same time period in 2011.

After a stray bullet killed seven-year-old Heaven Sutton outside her home, Chicago’s mayor pointed to the city’s gangs as the root of the problem. But community organisers say the rise in murders is a result of failed urban policies.

They argue that a systemic change is needed and not just a police crackdown.

It is also important to note that it is too soon to make a judgement on whether this is the beginning of a long-term trend. In fact, in July there were fewer murders in Chicago than in the same month last year.

According to Chicago’s police department, there were 319 murders in Chicago as of August 5 compared to 433 murders in all of 2011 – down 6 per cent from 2010, when there were 436.

“We … demanded that resources be channelled into our particular communities, specifically our correctional facilities where so many our youth and young kids are coming from. But we also helped to change the culture of our kids in the context of their thinking and became fashionable to them in their communities.”

– Tyrone Parker, the founder of the Alliance for Concerned Men

Overall, murder numbers in Chicago have been falling for years. In 2005, there were 451 murders, which was a dramatic drop from 2000, when there were 633.

But that is still far less than the number of murders in Chicago in the early 1990s, when there were often close to 1,000 murders per year.

So what is causing the recent rise in murders? And what can be done to stem it?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses with guests: Willie Cochran, the city councilman for Ward 20 in Chicago, one of the areas where there has been a rise in the number of homicides; Harold Pollack, the co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab; and Tyrone Parker, the founder of the Alliance for Concerned Men, a group that has had a high degree of success in reaching out to at-risk youth in Washington DC.

“I think guns have saturated our community and got into the hands of people who are irresponsible for handling those guns. And that means that in the hands of younger people who are now shooting younger people and older people.

“It is a recent phenomenon and that recent phenomenon I think is associated with the foreclosure issue as well. The foreclosure issue has made homes that have come back on the market available for investors and those investors have put people into those homes that have poor character … [they] don’t understand what it is to introduce them into communities that have been stable communities for a long time and they bring bad characteristics with them … and now you have developments of little satellite gangs … that take charge of three to four blocks.”

Willie Cochran, the city councilman for Ward 20 in Chicago


  • Chicago police say much of the violence is gang-related
  • Experts say Chicago’s gangs have splintered into many factions
  • Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, has unveiled several new police initiatives
  • Emanuel has consolidated police districts and cut police spending
  • The police say the drugs trade has contributed to the rise in violence
  • Chicago has a population of 2.5 million people
  • Chicago’s murder rate is higher than New York’s or Los Angeles’
  • Chicago’s 20th ward has the highest murder rate