In Chicago, summer is 'murder season'

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CHICAGO – Summertime, for many, means that, after months of cold, dreary weather, school’s out, vacations start and the festivities begin. But Chicago residents face a morbid reality that’s been consistent for years now. As the temperature rises, so does the possibility for crime, and subsequently, the homicide rate.

“I just knew that this was coming … It happens every year,” said Melanie Thomas, 24, a United States Army soldier based in Fort Hood, Texas, who will bury her youngest brother Saturday. Jaylin Johnson, 18, was one of 10 people killed as a result of gun violence over the Memorial Day weekend. Another 41 people were injured in shootings, all happening on Chicago’s South and West sides.

The most recent Chicago Police Department crime report shows that as of May 20, there were 192 murders in Chicago, compared with 126 by this time last year.

Johnson, who was home on summer break from his first year at Miles College in Alabama, suffered a gunshot wound to the head on the evening of May 30, on the 11000 block of South Normal Avenue on the South Side.  Another man in the area sustained a gunshot wound to the groin. Both were transported to Advocate Christ Medical Center in nearby Oak Lawn, where Johnson eventually died, according to his mother Tasha Bush, 42.

Johnson’s story happens too often in Chicago, said Bob Jackson, program manager for the Roseland area CeaseFire office.  He and his team of “violence interrupters” and outreach workers were immediately in contact with Bush and her family after her son’s shooting. The organization seeks to eliminate crime, by treating it as an infectious disease and “prescribing” the appropriate remedy.

According to Jackson, the high murder rate in Chicago can be attributed to many things. However, he says “it’s the mindset,” that must be changed first. CeaseFire works with at-risk youth in the community, gaining their trust through programs and initiatives designed to help change those mindsets and actions that are associated with violent behavior.

The economy has played a vital role in the rise of crime, in general says Jackson. “Our kids in our communities are competing against kids that are coming home from school for the summer. They’re competing against seniors for jobs now, too.” As a result, many people have idle time; enough time to get into trouble.

Those who pull the trigger seemingly “lack the concept of the value of life,” says Bush. According to Jackson, this value — instilled into people long ago — is a rare gem today.  It goes along with a lack of communication with your neighbor, he said. “If you know your neighbors, it’s kind of hard to treat them bad,” said Jackson.

“Community beautification and development is also important,” Bush added. “When you look good, you feel good. The community is not a comfortable place when you come outside and all you see is poverty and devastation.”

Hot summers, high crime

The simple fact that warm weather brings more people outside plays a vital role in Chicago’s uptick in summer murders, according to Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “The warm weather obviously just creates the opportunity for there to be more people to be outdoors and more potential for that impulsive violence to happen, and guns to be involved,” she said, adding that “the vast majority of the violent crimes; the homicides, the shootings, occur outdoors in public places. And just by definition, when it’s cold you don’t have as many people outside.”

Most of the homicides are “retaliatory in nature,” said Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.  According to the Chicago Police Department, more than half of all homicides result from some sort of altercation. There’s also a “proliferation of firearms in the city of Chicago,” he said.

Ander contends that lower school engagement could also play a role in higher murder rates. “There’s a lot of really good, strong research about the impact that school engagement and helping a kid get through high school has on, not just the correlation, but really there’s a causal link.  So when kids are out of school, obviously that’s a factor.”

Bush agrees that more school activities are necessary. “I believe that there aren’t enough productive programs in the elementary schools,” Bush said. She thinks that nowadays, to catch the attention of kids and breed socially conscious nonviolent adults, the intervention should start earlier. “By the time they get to high school, it’s too late.”

Ander adds that “It’ll be interesting when the City of Chicago uses more year-round schools, to see if during the highest risk times of the year… [the longer school days] have an impact on the violence and the crime side.”

Additionally, Ander said that alcohol has not been taken into account as much as it should be. “We spent a lot of time as a society talking about illicit drugs and the connection of drug markets to violence, which is obviously an issue, but I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about the role that alcohol plays,” said Ander. She continued, “(Alcohol) tends to increase the likelihood that you’re going to have a violent incident. So when you combine the alcohol use, and the easy access to guns and the gun carrying, I think that that creates a very problematic environment for Chicago.” The University of Chicago Crime Lab studied the toxicology reports of youth killed by gun violence in 2006, and according to Ander, about a third of them had alcohol in their system.

To curb the issue, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and McCarthy recently unveiled the Gang Violence Reduction Strategy, which seeks to combat gang-related crime. “Reducing gang-related violence is key to driving down overall crime in Chicago,” said Emanuel in a statement. “This new integrated approach is designed to address our City’s unique gang problem and uses every asset at our disposal to keep our neighborhoods safe.”

Chicago’s unique gang issue has intensified over the past couple of decades, as a result of the city’s demolition of public housing projects such as the Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green developments. Jackson says as many of those residents went to different parts of the city, so did new gang turfs and ultimately, more crime.

The new plan will also target criminal activity that’s associated with “problem” businesses. “Businesses serve as anchors in their communities, but some serve as conduits for criminal activity, and those are the businesses that we are targeting,” said Emanuel. “Whether you are a problem business, a violent street corner, or a known drug market, we will go after you.”

Chicago’s newly-integrated crime-fighting strategy will include data-driven results, and will take into account crime threats and leads from social media. “This is the first comprehensive strategy to defeat the violence associated with gangs, streamlining intelligence, communication and resources across bureaus and within the community,” said McCarthy. “This strategy is multi-faceted and does not rely solely on arrests for combating the unique gang issue in Chicago.”

Renita Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow Renita on Twitter at @RenitaDYoung