INN investigation: A year of gun violence in Chicago

The numbers alone don’t paint the full picture of what’s fueling much of the gun violence plaguing Chicago, Demeatreas Wadley laments.

The numbers alone don’t paint the full picture of what’s fueling much of the gun violence plaguing Chicago, Demeatreas Wadley laments.

“Without question there are violent people out here that society needs to deal with, but the vast majority of these guys are crying out for someone to talk them down from all the madness,” said Wadley, a supervisor at Cure Violence, a non-profit national organization headquartered in Chicago that treats gang violence as a public health issue.

“They want to be able to defer to that voice of reason. I know it looks crazy as it’s portrayed in the news and on TV, but I can tell you a lot of these guys really want a different life for themselves,” he said.

Utilizing the state’s Freedom of Information Act laws, the Illinois News Network sought and obtained Chicago Police Department records of arrests made in the city’s gun-related crimes in 2014. Charges ranged from first-degree murder, to aggravated assault, to armed robbery to being a habitual criminal illegally in possession of a firearm.

Overall, there were 410 homicides committed in Chicago in 2014, according to Chicago Police Department statistics – 372 of them by firearms and a total of 2,599 shootings in the city.

The 410 homicides in Chicago in 2014 represents the fewest number of homicides in the city in the past decade. In 2015, there were 480, according to CPD data. In 2016, there were 757. The number dropped to 654 in 2017.

Chicago Police Department statistics are incomplete for 2018, but the Chicago Tribune reported at least 570 homicides this year through Friday, and more than 2,900 gunshot victims. The majority of the victims are young black males, according to the Tribune’s tracker.

Although the number of homicides has decreased since 2016, gun violence has been so pervasive in a handful of Chicago neighborhoods that the city regularly gains national media attention. And President Donald Trump has been openly critical of the city’s handling of the gun violence.

As part of our investigation, we’ve confirmed that the vast majority of gun-related crimes in Chicago are unsolved. Most shootings are related to street gang violence, authorities say, and witnesses often are reluctant to come forward. The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that total clearance rates for nonfatal shootings in the city fell from 23 percent to 15 percent between 2011 and 2017. For homicides, the total clearance rate fell from 49 percent to 35 percent. The national average for homicide clearances is closer to 60 percent.

After obtaining police arrest records, INN reviewed the available data on gun crimes committed in 2014, and then cross-checked them with their corresponding cases in the Circuit Court of Cook County. The full scope of this data review remains in process and will be used to dig deeper into the stories behind the data. 

What’s important for context is what data is available. Our investigation focused on cases in which an arrest was made, where a final adjudication in the court system was made, and the race of the person committing a crime with a gun was logged into the case file. 

In those cases in which those three basic criteria were met, 69.4 percent – or nearly 7 in 10 – ended in the conviction of a black perpetrator. Almost 23 percent of those convicted of 2014 gun-related homicides were Hispanic, while 8.3 percent were white.

According to 2017 U.S. Census estimates, 30.5 percent of Chicago residents are black compared to 49.1 percent white and 29 percent Hispanic.

In addition to the gun-related homicide outcomes, INN’s investigation also uncovered the following:

  • 70.9 percent of people charged with aggravated battery by illegally discharging a firearm in Chicago in 2014 were black, 20.4 percent were Hispanic and 2.9 percent were white. No race was recorded on court records in 5.8 percent of cases.
  • Of those convicted of aggravated battery from the 2014 cases, 77.4 percent were black, 21 percent were Hispanic and 1.6 percent were white.
  • Of those charged with being a habitual criminal in possession of a firearm in 2014 in Chicago, 84.1 percent were black, 11.4 percent were Hispanic. Court records didn’t indicate ethnicity on the remaining 4.5 percent.
  • Of those convicted of being a habitual criminal illegally in possession of a firearm, 92 percent were black and 8 percent were Hispanic.

Charlie Ransford, a colleague of Wadley’s at Cure Violence, offered that – other than the black-on-black element common to much of the ongoing shooting violence in the city – another common denominator is the vast depths of poverty shared by most of those impacted.

“If you were to look at a poverty violence map of the city, you would see all the same things are happening in all the same places over and over in terms of most of the violence,” Ransford, Cure Violence’s director of Science and Policy. “To me, that says we need to change the norms that spread the disease, and to this point there haven’t been any solutions that speak to socio-economic factors and conditions at the root of all this. No one’s come up with any poverty alleviation programs.”

Most of Wadley’s days are spent crisscrossing the city’s South Side doing all he can to keep the peace. He often reflects on how much easier his job would be if so many young people didn’t feel as if they’ve already been sacrificed by the system.

“It’s depressing to see how many young people lack all hope,” he said. “Young guys especially feel like they have no other alternative but to do illegal things to make money. And in the midst of that, a lot of the violence happens. For a lot of them, that’s not who they are at the core, but they’re trapped in all this and it only takes a minute to get caught up. When you have to get high or drunk to go out to do most of the crazy things we see happening, that’s not really who you are.”

While some argue the key to a different life for the most downtrodden lies in a world of greater education and better preparation, Wadley counters the situation has become much more complex than that given all the miseducation that’s been spread.

“It has to be an alternative that they feel is genuinely reachable,” he said. “For example, a lot of these guys have families now to take care of, but they don’t know how to work or have the skill set to do so. Still, the real truth is they’re not going to sit in a classroom for hours every day with just a chance of getting a job once they’ve completed a course. The other option has to be one that makes sense for them. Something like paid apprenticeships, where they earn while they learn. If we’re really serious about doing this and changing the lives of all these people left behind, these are the kinds of programs we need to be striving to get going in these communities.”

Orphe Divounguy, chief economist at the free market Illinois Policy Institute, said state government can play a role in helping to reduce Chicago’s gun violence.

“Policies that lead to less crime are the same as the ones that put people into jobs,” Divounguy said. “That means lowering barriers to entry (occupational licensing reform). It means lowering our overall tax burden to stimulate job creation. It means school district consolidation, because by reducing the number of administrators, we can fund better teachers and classrooms to keep kids off the streets.”

Illinois is home to nearly 7,000 units of government, more than any other U.S. state, including more than 850 school districts. Illinoisans also shoulder among the highest local and state tax burdens in the country.

Citing the state’s massive unfunded pension debt of more than $133 billion, Divounguy said nothing “will be possible without pension reform because pension costs are crowding out funding for classrooms and after-school programs … Lowering crime, violent or nonviolent, starts by creating more opportunities in these impoverished communities.”

William Sampson, chair of Public Policy Studies at DePaul University, said he doesn’t believe politicians have the political will to make necessary reforms.

“The reality is the political will is not there to change things or even deal with the problem because those in power aren’t the ones being hurt by what’s happening,” he said. “No one magic pill can change things, but we’re not even seeing a real effort at bringing about change.”

Sampson marvels at how times have deteriorated to the point he believes it’s now easier to get a gun than it is a job in the areas where most minorities call home.

“I can remember a time when blacks were moving to Chicago by the thousands every week to work at the well-paying factories that were spread out all over, allowing them to make a life for themselves,” he said. “That’s all gone now, but everything in society tells you now more than ever you’re nobody unless you have something. So many of these young people are just acting on that, they desperately want to have something for themselves.”

Also of note from INN’s investigation, 42 percent of all gun-related homicide cases in Chicago from 2014 have not been resolved, meaning they remain in the court system.

Repeated calls to the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office for comment on INN’s findings and to speak to the data uncovered in the investigation went unreturned.

David Olsen, professor and Graduate Program Director at the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology Co-Director, Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University Chicago, said that balancing the scales of swift and righteous justice can be a delicate process.

“The average amount of time to dispose of a murder case in Cook County is very high for a variety of reasons,” he told INN. “One is that the defendant often has very little motivation to get the case to move quickly. Under Illinois sentencing law, anyone convicted of murder must serve 100 percent of the sentence, and the ‘going rate’ for a murder sentence is around 45 years.”

Based on that clearly harsh reality, Olsen said many defendants come to feel as if they have nothing to gain from seeing their case quickly move through the system and may even feel the longer the case takes the greater the chances that witnesses will fade away or, for whatever reason, be less likely to cooperate with authorities.

“All the while, the defendant remains incarcerated closer to home rather than further away in a state prison, and there is a chance the case will fall apart with time (e.g. witnesses disappear, police officers involved in interrogation get fired, etc., etc.),” he said.

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