Two hours into 2016, DeAndre Holiday, a 24-year-old father of three, became another sad statistic of Chicago’s runaway violence, fatally shot in the chest as he left a New Year’s Eve party in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side.
In the weeks since, the tally of those killed has hit 50, making January the deadliest start to a year in Chicago in at least 16 years.
As many people died in January as in many summer months, the usual peak season for violence.
Holiday’s mother, Gwendolyn, is trying to persuade her two other children — and possibly her grandchildren — to move with her to her native Atlanta.
“The violence is not gonna end. It’s getting worse,” said the 51-year-old, her eyes watering as she sat on her bed last week in her apartment in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. “Every day when you turn the news on somebody’s child, son, father, brother has lost their lives for no reason. It’s senseless to me. It makes no sense. None.”
By 8 a.m. Sunday, the final day of the month, about 280 people had been shot in January, according to a Tribune analysis of Police Department data. Shootings nearly doubled from last January and — perhaps more worrisome — jumped more than 60 percent from the first month of 2012, the last year in which homicides rose above 500.
In all, 50 were killed as of Sunday morning — a figure that includes three beating and stabbing deaths, the analysis showed. That’s the most homicides in January since at least 2000 — as far back as publicly available city statistics go. The Police Department was unable to provide numbers further back.
The timing of the upsurge in violence comes at a particularly stressful time for a department that has been roiled in the fallout over the court-ordered release two months ago of a disturbing dashboard camera video showing a Chicago police officer shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times as the 17-year-old walked away from police with a knife in his hand. That has led to murder charges against Officer Jason Van Dyke, weeks of street protests, the firing of longtime police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, calls for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the launch of a U.S. Justice Department investigation of the Police Department.
Police activity down, violence up
In a telephone interview Saturday, John Escalante, the interim police superintendent, said while major cities across the country saw upticks in violence last year, Chicago was “literally alone” with its bloody start to 2016.
The 29-year department veteran expressed concern about morale after hearing worries from officers about being put under the microscope for merely doing their jobs. He acknowledged that the number of street stops has dropped sharply so far this year, though he couldn’t provide any figures.
“I’ve gone to the roll calls and I’ve heard their concerns about not wanting to be the next viral video,” he said. “Even when they’re doing something right, it may not be perceived that way.”
Escalante couldn’t say if the drop in police activity has contributed to the rise in violence, but he implied that the numbers might suggest that.
“We do know that the violent crimes are increasing and the activity that we would normally see from officers seems to have decreased significantly,” he said.
It’s important to keep in mind that the violence is far reduced from decades ago when homicides sometimes exceeded 900 in a year. But what continues to be troubling is the fact that Chicago’s level of violence far outpaces New York and Los Angeles, both more populous. The two had comparable numbers through about Jan. 23 — some 60 shot or injured, 20 of them fatally, according to the most recent numbers provided. By comparison, at that point, some 210 people had been shot or injured in Chicago, at least 33 of them fatally.
Andrew Holmes, a familiar face at shooting scenes in his work for Chicago Survivors, which assists grieving families who have lost loved ones through violence, is concerned the city will have a disaster on its hands “if we don’t get a handle on this right now.”
It’s “very dangerous looking ahead into the spring because it’s in the red zone already,” he said.
Crime experts caution about making month-by-month or even year-by-year comparisons of homicides, arguing that long-term trends give a better understanding of how the level of violence in a city has changed over time.
“There’s certain volatility in crime statistics, particularly homicides, where numbers can go up and down to some extent randomly and not because of any particular cause,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “So when you have a narrow time frame … the numbers can be somewhat unreliable … in terms of indicating a trend.”
But what makes January’s numbers so troubling is that the uptick in violence follows two successive years in which shootings rose by double-digits. Homicides also rose by about 12.5 percent last year over 2014.
What is driving the violence is unclear other than Chicago’s unrelenting gang woes in impoverished, segregated pockets of the city’s South and West sides.
Escalante acknowledged his frustration over the year’s violent start. He blamed gang disputes, the easy availability of guns and the use of social media to spark slights and animosities, but he admitted the department is uncertain over the exact causes for the uptick.
“We can’t put our finger on any one or two things that are driving this really big spike in violence, especially with the murders,” he said. “We look at it every day, talk about it every day, trying to find where we can deploy resources better or what we can look for to try to predict the next potential shooting location.”
To increase police visibility in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, 380 officers and sergeants assigned to foot patrols on the South and West sides have been moved into police cars. That would seem to run counter to department efforts to bridge its gap with minority communities, but Escalante stressed in the interview that the change was temporary.
In recent weeks, Cook County sheriff’s officers have joined with Chicago police to go after gangs and guns on the West Side.
In addition, Escalante has ordered the department’s 22 district commanders to increase their home visits to known gang members as part of a project to offer them social services if they give up the gang life.
‘It’s gonna be a war’
Even with a few days left in the month, January had already recorded more homicides than any since at least 2000. And a forecast of an unseasonably warm final weekend of the month raised fears that the numbers could grow.
Three more killings took place Friday night and early Saturday, including a 31-year-old man found shot to death inside a vehicle in the West Garfield Park neighborhood on the West Side. Police said the victim had been killed in a possible drive-by shooting shortly before 3 a.m. Saturday.
Officers blocked off Washington Boulevard at Kilbourn Avenue with yellow and red crime tape. An Audi SUV could be seen with its doors open. Officers were shining flashlights on a cluster of at least four shell casings lying in the street.
About a dozen people gathered nearby. A man in a black jacket bent down and let out a moan, then sat on the ground.
A few moments later, a woman walked up, crying.
“What the (expletive)? Why?” she asked, holding up both of her arms in the air.
The man in the black jacket walked up to the crime tape and tried to pass under it to view his friend’s body.
“I need to see my homie,” he repeated three times.
A pair of police officers stopped him and were joined by other officers who explained that the crime scene was off-limits while police were investigating.
“Do you wanna get arrested tonight?” one officer asked.
“Man, I don’t care if I get arrested,” he shouted.
“You gotta let us do our job,” said another officer, trying to calm the situation.
The man stepped back and began pacing near the scene.
“It’s gonna be a war that’s coming. It’s gonna be a war,” he said as he walked back and forth.
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