Chicago Media on the Violence in Chicago

It would be nice if the media did their jobs to separate fact from fiction and urban myth.  One thing the Chicago media is very good at is being an echo chamber for accusations and rumor rather than taking that material in and comparing it to the facts to see if there is any validity to the accusations or it is just a bunch of hot air.  In Chicago the reporting about a huge new wave in violence this summer seems to be based almost entirely on hot air devoid of any attempts by the press to use facts to validate the claims.  Why, because the press is lazy and they do not want to do the legwork (a.k.a their jobs) to retrieve the facts from criminal justice agencies.  In this blog, we are going to take a closer look at some of the press to examine what is missing, believe me there is plenty.

First a few words on violence in Chicago

Question:  Is there is a huge new wave of violence in Chicago compared to previous summers?

Answer:  No.  I greatly doubt that we are seeing a huge increase in violence.  The reality is that all summers see a large increase in violence to due many factors, including the heat.  This has been going on in Chicago for decades and probably will continue considering our continued efforts to rehash failed responses from the past that have no chance of being a long-term solution, i.e., the police and criminal justice system are not a long-term solution to violence.   What I believe is playing out is that violence is cropping up in areas that have not seen street violence at this level in many years, if ever, while simultaneously violence in what most Chicagoans would consider violence plagued neighborhoods is not as bad as it has been in recent years.  With restrictions on CPD data that exist today it is hard to validate any theory, including those posed by Superintendent Weis and Mayor Daley.

Weis and CPDOne of the major problems is the ability of citizens and the press to determine if there is an increase in violence without having to go through the propaganda machine known as the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) press office.  Communities lack access to information that would allow them to determine for themselves if all the violence in their community is being captured by the CPD and how present levels of violence compare to previous years.  The CLEAR site maintained by the CPD is a failure not because it is not pretty and sophisticated but because it was never meant to be a community empowerment tool.  It was designed to allow the CPD to put information online to silence transparency critics without making information useful to community members so that communities could be empowered to challenge CPD practices.

Communities should have ready access to all the statistical information they need to do the following on a regular basis:

  • Contextualize the historical and present day levels of crime and violence in their community
  • Compare the levels of crime and violence in their community to levels in other communities throughout the city.
  • Be able to compare how the CPD and other criminal justice agencies respond to crime and violence from their community to other communities throughout the city.
  • Be able to understand how the CPD and other criminal justice agencies create and maintain their data to then verify if the statistics kept by these agencies adequately reflect the reality of crime and violence in their community.

Right now the CPD releases a reasonable amount of data but not in an empowering form, this must change.  The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) release no data, they should be considered the black box of the Chicago/Cook County criminal justice system.  The Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), similar to the SAO, releases almost no data and what they do release takes up only a couple of lines of the CPD’s annual report.  These restrictions on data and the limited format in which the data is released severely limits the degree to which citizens can engage the criminal justice system, which might just be the way the agencies want it.

Question:  Why the all the indignation and outrage now and not 15 years ago when the homicide rate was almost double what it was last year and will most likely be this year?

Three Possible Answers:

  1. I have been struggling with this question for some time without being able to determine a cohesive answer.  To some degree I believe that the recent shallow reporting around violence is nothing more than an extreme example of “if it bleeds it leads” mentality that took hold in the media a couple decades ago.   With newsrooms shrinking in response to changes in the media landscape reporting on violence is inexpensive and easy to conduct with little resources.   And it keeps the audience watching.
  2. It could be that the majority white media in Chicago has finally decided to care about the victims of street violence most of whom reside in communities of color in Chicago; however, that would suggest a complete cultural renaissance within the newsrooms that I am just not ready to believe is possible.   Remember the care in reporting the same Chicago media demonstrated when reporting on both the Lincoln Porch Collapse and the E2 Night Club tragedies; the differences were completely based on the race of the victims.
  3. Someone, I believe it was Arne Duncan but I am not sure about it, decided to start reporting the number of Chicago Public School children that were murdered every year in gun related violence.  What a huge mistake this has been for the Chicago Public Schools, the youth of our city, the residents of Chicago, and the Chicago Police Department.  The major problem is that because their was no historical numbers to look at there was no ability for anyone viewing the statistic in the vacuum to understand if the figure was higher or lower than the last 5, 10, or 15 years.  Not to mention that the figure completely ignores other youth in our city that are not enrolled in Chicago Public Schools.  From a press perspective, it seems like they don’t matter.  Personally I believe any death resulting from a homicide is tragic, but public policy must be formed through evidence-based decision making and best practices and not on the reactionary knee jerk responses to sensationalist reporting from the local media.  I suspect that youth homicides of CPS students was already on a long down trend in a direct correlation with the overall homicide rates in Chicago at the time.
For more on the dimensions of the media coverage regarding the Lincoln Park porch collapse and the E2 Night Club tragedy, read and listen to these from Steve Rhodes:  1  &   2

Examples of Great Chicago Press:

More Crime and PoliticsCharles Thomas,
ABC 7 Blog Post
Aug. 11, 2010

To say that this post is horrible significantly understates the level to which this post plummets.  Journalists always have a responsibility to make sure they are informing the public with facts and not innuendo, gossip, or rumor.  This post is filled with proof that Thomas’ lack of understanding about police statistics allowed him to insinuate that the way the CPD calculates statistics permits them to show that crime is going down when crime really isn’t.  An astute accusation if it was only based on a hint of a fact.  Youth Violence

Problem #1:

“Roderick Drew, the police department’s media affairs director, confirmed this morning that when multiple persons are shot during a barrage of gunfire in Chicago it is counted as ONE aggravated battery.”  That’s right.  Only one.  That’s because a shooting, no matter how many people are hit, is counted as a single incident.  Just last weekend (August 6-8), there were five incidents with multiple victims.  The cops counted only five aggravated batteries when in fact over 15 people were injured or killed.”  “I can’t say why its counted that way”, Drew told me.  “Its that way all over the country.”

Here Mr. Thomas could have included the results of his legwork and pointed out to his readers that police agencies throughout the country collect data in a format that is mandated by the FBI for use in their Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).  All urban police agencies, and most of the 19,000 police agencies across the country, collect and maintain data in a format dictated by the UCR.  This is not a recent change as the UCR has been in place since 1930.

So despite Thomas’ insinuation that because the department counts a shooting where 5 individuals are shot as a single aggravated battery the CPD is able to show that violence is going down when it isn’t, the truth is the CPD has been keeping stats in this format for decades.  Since the statistical methods have stayed the same the only way this could be affecting the current crime statistics in a way that it didn’t in the past is if there is evidence of a much larger number of multi-victim shootings this year compared to past years.  Of course since Thomas is part of the Chicago media he did not make an effort to get data from the CPD and run the numbers to see if there are more or less multi-victim shootings in 2010 than in prior years.  Maybe there are, but I see no evidence provided here to support that assumption, in fact, I see no evidence to support anything in this piece.

Problem #2:

“Also, when folks in Englewood, Roseland and other ultra violent neighborhoods hear dozens of gunshots on a hot summer night, the vast majority of the incidents–even those reported to 9-1-1–are not included in the crime stats.  Not only is it against the law to fire a weapon inside the city, the bullets–assuming most missed their targets–are evidence of attempted aggravated batteries or even attempted murders.  But again, nobody’s including those obvious crimes in the statistics.”

Well, this is actually almost an interesting point Thomas has here, almost.  Once again he lacks any historical context to suggest that this problem did not exist in prior years or that there is some legitimate reason to include every call from 911 about hearing shots in the crime statistics.  If the CPD included a statistic for every time a person called police and heard shots as a shooting, which by the way there is no statistical category for, Chicago would be the most violent city in the world from now until eternity.  Are we to assume that everyone that calls from a specific geographic area around the first call is calling about the same sound and not a totally separate incident or are we to count each call as a separate shooting?  If no citizen is willing to sign a complaint that they were shooting at him/her what type of crime are we to register the shooting as?  A shooting?   Without any complainant there is no way to know if the shooter was shooting at a person, which could be aggravated assault, attempt aggravated battery, or aggravated battery, or if they were shooting into the air which would probably be considered miss-use of a firearm and illegal possession of a firearm.   This is not as easy as Thomas thinks it is.

Are the CPD playing with the crime stats?  Yes.  The fact is they always have and always will be playing with the statistics because it is easy propaganda for lazy reporters and reporting.  Is it necessarily the way Thomas says it is?  Nope.  Read these posts and you will be filled in better:

ben joravsky“The Vanishing Beat Cop”
Ben Joravsky
The Chicago Reader
Aug. 12, 2010

I am pretty speechless about this albatross on an otherwise stellar journalism career, but this venture into reporting on the CPD and issues involving crime was a complete failure by Joravsky.  He quite clearly demonstrated he should stick to his game plan and not venture away from reporting on TIFs.  As you read this story, you can see how it could have easily been written by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) (the union that represents patrol officers) because it basically is filled with the unsubstantiated allegations that characterize much of their public commentary.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the ridiculous logic demonstrated by Joravsky.

“”They were yelling, ‘Fuck the police, fuck the police,'” says Hudson. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Believe me, I’m no fan of police brutality—but this shit is getting out of hand.”  Hudson had never before seen such brazen defiance in the face of authority, but the incident was far from the first this summer in his corner of Logan Square, near Drake and Cortland. “The gangbangers will shoot off guns or keep us up late or break a window, and we’ll call the police, and they’re slow to respond,” he says. “If they’re openly defiant to police officers, how are ordinary citizens going to be safe? There’s a loss of authority here.”  The apocalyptic worldview Hudson has taken away from these experiences is echoed by a dozen or so police officers I’ve talked to over the last few weeks. They don’t want their names used because they fear retaliation, but they’re surprisingly candid about their growing sense of helplessness.”

Really, he has never seen kids say ‘fuck you’ to the police before, where has he lived his whole life?  The kids were saying what they were saying because they knew they could.  Why?  Not because they don’t fear the police, they probably knew they were not holding any drugs or weapons and the police were powerless to intervene in their lives, umm… because at that moment they were not breaking the law.  In a free country you can tell a cop to screw off if you are not breaking any other law.  How dare those kids bask in the glow of their rights?  Damn gangbangers!  As for not seeing it I saw the same thing 5 years ago during a ride along in Austin at 1am when the cops pulled over kids and searched them and the car for no reason.  Why did the kids smart off?  Because once again they were not doing anything wrong and knew they could.  As a social scientist I can only wonder what impact, if any, race had on the interpretation of this incident.

“As they see it, it’s open season on cops—and the cold-blooded murder July 18 of Officer Michael Bailey as he waxed his car in full uniform at six in the morning outside his Park Manor home is just the latest evidence.”

This statement is a clear reflection of the view of a minority of the department.  This officer was killed as part of a robbery that went bad.  He was not targeted for murder because he was a cop.  City cops are the victims of crimes everyday in this city, sometimes while in uniform sometimes in civilian clothes.  The circumstances of this murder are horrible as all murders are, but nothing more than that and it does not represent anything even remotely close to it being open season on cops in Chicago.  Reporting nonsense like this statement without a rebuttal is doing nothing more than being a megaphone for the most paranoid and alarmist viewpoints on the force.

“Even so, common sense says the falling number of beat cops will eventually pose a public safety issue that Chicago must come to terms with.”

Ben, even cops will tell you that they do not prevent much crime.  A new saying in police circles, the educated and best practices circles is “random patrol gets you random results” meaning that even cops know they don’t really prevent much crime driving around.  Police in the U.S. are not built to be preventative; in fact most Americans do not want officers to intervene before a crime has been committed.  It has something to do with the land of the free and all that junk.  For a glimpse at what that would be like get out of the Reader’s offices in the loop and go talk to some community members about how much they like the Special Operations Section’s type of policing.  They were “preventative.”

“Then a high-ranking police insider showed me some documents. On a recent day shift, there were fewer than 1,100 officers actually working the streets. Compare this force of first responders with the 75,000 gang members the police estimate are out there. “We’re outmanned,” says this officer.”

The same staffing declines are occurring with other positions, like detectives. Don’t get cops started on that subject. “We don’t have enough detectives,” says the senior officer.

If fewer cops on the street means fewer crimes prevented, fewer detectives means fewer crimes solved. One shortage feeds the other. Clearance rates, meaning the percentage of cases where a suspect is charged, have been steadily falling. In 2001 the clearance rate for murders was 54.2 percent. In 2008, the latest year for which the department has released numbers, it was 37.4 percent.

Once again Ben you are pretty close to making a point but because you did not do any legwork the numbers are used out of context.  Comparing the total numbers of cops on duty to the total number of gang members (I have no idea how you got that number and doubt the validity of that number because it is so political but I will run with it here to prove my point) is ridiculous, and you should now better.  Never has there been or will there ever be a time when all the officers on duty in the city are called upon to do battle with all the gang members in the city.  This premise is stupid, and you using it to demonstrate how out-numbered the cops are is a horrible use of numbers.

Just 1 of CJP’s Current Battles for the Facts!
CJP filed several FOIAs with the CPD many months ago regarding staffing and district and watch assignments.  The CPD denied all of the FOIAs regarding staffing because of concern for officer safety.  The FOIAs have been appealed and are now waiting on a ruling from the Public Access Counselor’s Office of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

If you were going to do this story correctly you should have FOIAed the manpower numbers from the city by district and watch and then used those numbers to demonstrate how many officers each district is short per watch.  But you didn’t because that would have taken time and been representative of a responsible journalist.   Your math seems pretty good as the first sort of informed look at CPD staffing levels.  The problem is that you didn’t make any effort to compare it to prior years.  Are 1100 offices on the street bad or good?  What were the levels (on the street not just employed) 10 years ago?  Is the CPD’s staffing reflective of a trend in other large cities across the country, and if so why?  Asking a cop you know if what he personally experiences is bad and then asking the FOP for comment is not doing your job.  Is there the remotest possibility that the head of the union representing patrol officers is ever going to say there are too many officers on the street?  What a joke, why would you even bother?  Did you even need to make the call to know what he was going to say?

As for the clearance rates, your assumption that the reductions in detective staffing levels are the reason clearance rates are dropping is probably partially true.  Regarding homicides though, the nature of the crimes have dramatically changed since the early 90s so clearances rates obviously were going to change with them.  The simple fact is that interpersonal homicides have plummeted and thus they have accounted for the huge drop in homicides nation wide leaving the detectives to try to solve the murders with little or no obvious connection between the victim and offender.  This fact more than any staffing reductions in the detective level account for the drop in the clearance rates for homicides (again, nationally, not just in Chicago).

Ben, you should take a look at New York City for an example.  Their crime has fallen faster than Chicago’s all while they have reduced the number of police officers and their incarceration rates.

“Daley walks fine line on crime”Fran Spielman
Fran Spielman
The Chicago Sun Times
Aug. 4, 2010

“It’s tough to make the case that Chicago is a safe place to live and work when three police officers are gunned down in two months, and a 13-year-old who just moved here is shot 22 times, execution-style, in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

That’s why Mayor Daley and Police Supt. Jody Weis are walking a tightrope on a crime issue that, polls show, is resonating with the public.

On the one hand, they’re doing everything they possibly can without money — with the city facing a record, $654.7 million shortfall — to stop a raging gang war that’s terrorizing entire communities.”

Is there really a “raging gang war” Fran?  This statement certainly seems to assume facts that are not in evidence.   Comparing homicide rates from 10 years ago would tend to inform an educated person that the gang wars were “raging” much worse years ago.  Does this mean the cops are doing a better job now than they were then?  Also, why is it that if the city had more money they would be better at responding and able to prevent homicides?  Ten years ago the city had more officers and a booming economy— and more murders.  Does this mean there is some correlation between the number of officers on the street, the city’s budget, and the number of homicides?   In fact, if you just look simplistically at the raw numbers, there actually appears to be some kind of trend that the more officers that the city has on the street & the more flush the city’s coffers are the more murders there are in Chicago.   But this would be an overly simplistic set of assumptions.  In reality, there is very little direct correlation between the number of police officers a city employs and the city’s homicide rate.  I guess the cops and the budget are the problem then.  Maybe we should further reduce the staffing of the CPD more and spend the city into bankruptcy and we can shoot for no homicides in Chicago.

Throwing Fran A Bone

“In 2009, there were 16 murder victims per 100,000 residents in Chicago. That’s at least double the murder rates in Los Angeles and New York at eight and six per 100,000 respectively. When it comes to robbery and aggravated battery, Chicago’s rates dwarf those of L.A. and New York.

 “When you talk about per capita, one of the most dangerous cities in the United States is Orlando. And what is Orlando known for?” Weis said, referring to Disney World.

 “Unless you can articulate every demographic possible — the number of gangs, the number of weapons — [it’s impossible to compare].”

Unfortunately for Superintendent Weis he is dead wrong on this issue.  Per capita comparisons across similar situated categories are not only proper but also vital to determining best practices as well as many other social science research questions.  Here comparing Chicago to Orlando is ridiculous but comparing Chicago to New York is perfectly proper.  Chicago does have about 3 times the per capita murder rate than New York and about a 60% higher per capita murder rate than Los Angeles.  The comparison between these cities is completely credible and a useful metric to understand how similarly situated cities compare to each other.

WGN TV  July 21, 2010

“It has already been a long, hot summer of violence. On Friday, Mayor Daley contended the murder of a Chicago policeman was an isolated act.

Just two days later, on Sunday, the death of police officer Michael Bailey, who was assigned to protect Daley, proved that wasn’t the case.”

This line might just be one of the worst in all the reporting in Chicago.  For some reason, the media and much of the public are convinced that the murder of an officer is worse than the murder of just about any other person.   This attitude leads to a view among citizens and the press that officers are, or should be, untouchable and invulnerable.  Jon Burge provides all the evidence we need about how dangerous this attitude can be.  These cases just provided a couple more recent examples of the vulnerability and fallibility of police: Fox, Hobbs.

Also, 2 of the 3 homicides seem to be robbery attempts that went bad and have nothing to do with the fact that officers were targeted.  The third officer that was murdered seems to be at the hands of a deranged or mentally troubled individual.  Maybe closing mental health clinics in not in the police or the public’s best interest Mr. Mayor.

What should be taken from the fact that all three have occurred in such a short period of time?  Nothing.  I am sorry but all the drama presented by the Chicago press about how dangerous the city is because now the gangs are killing cops is nothing more than reactionary fear baiting from the media.  When individuals resist robberies involving armed assailants violence is a predictable outcome.  I worked in the jewelry industry for 20 years and we were always told to give up anything the robbers wanted to reduce any chance violence would erupt.  This does not seem to be the case in either of the officers’ deaths, both of which seem to have started out as robberies and then end in their deaths.   Does this mean the officers are responsible for their own murders, of course not; however, it does provide evidence that the officers were not targets for homicides but were targets of opportunity to be robbed, something that happens to off-duty officers all the time in the city according to my sources in the CPD.


Clearly the media lacks either the ability or the desire to do the needed legwork to obtain access to data from the Chicago Police Department to put the day’s events in the necessary context for communities.  At this point, the media is doing a disservice to communities that are experiencing the violence in Chicago.  What would be nice is to track how many jobs have been created and lost in these communities over the last 20 plus years of Mayor Daley’s rule in Chicago and then try to determine if there exists a correlation between jobs lost or lack of jobs created in these communities and street violence.  Maybe also track the money invested in the community schools in the affected neighborhoods and see if the correlation holds; of course we need to make sure that any money invested in local schools resulted in upgrades in the schools that local children attend and not the charter schools that they are not allowed in.  Once this is done, then press the authorities with the results and force new long-term strategies to be proposed by communities and officials.  A return to the SOS style “preventative” policing is not a solution and will lead to a further deterioration of the relationship between these communities and the Chicago Police Department; not to mention further drive the unbelievable expenditures on civil litigation costs including lawyers, settlements, and judgments.  This is a time for serious public discourse, not a time for cheap sensationalist fear mongering.  The media needs to step-up to the plate and produce a real community service by driving a fact-based public discourse on crime and violence in Chicago.  Otherwise, little will change.  Our communities will continue to be plagued by violence while the established media outlets will continue to regurgitate virtually identical inflammatory headlines year after year.

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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