Chicago murder rate drops by 34 percent, but does the city feel any safer?

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CHICAGO—This week, the nation’s third-largest city reached a milestone it hadn’t seen since the 1960s as murders dropped by 34 percent compared with the same time in 2012. Chicago officials attribute the drastic decrease to progress from a comprehensive crime reduction strategy that Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel employed in 2012.

But following a year when the city topped 500 homicides in 2012 and saw such jarring murders as teen honor student Hadiya Pendleton and 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins in the first few months of 2013, the recent dramatic drop in killings has many residents surprised, especially those in higher crime areas of Chicago.

“I think it’s about the same. It just appears that way,” said Keturah Judah, a resident the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side, a neighborhood that had the highest volume of crimes in the city last year this time.

The temperature of the city

Judah works at a boutique in a neighborhood on the West Side just west of the Medical District and south of East Garfield Park, another higher crime community. As she pressed a button to buzz a customer in the locked front door, she said she doesn’t feel safer in her neighborhood. “I’m always hearing and seeing more crime in the news. It is what it is.”

 “I feel [the crime rate is] exactly the same. I hear the reports that it’s dropped, but I see that’s because of the weather,” said Ed Lee, 24, who works at a beauty supply store in Englewood on the South Side, where crime has dropped 19 percent this year.

During the same period in 2012, the weather was considerably warmer, a known contributing factor to violence in Chicago.

“I think the fact that we’ve had a colder than usual, and had a warmer than usual spring last year that that may be a factor in both the increase that we saw last year and the decrease that we’ve seen this year,” said Roseanna Ander, the founding Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Too early to start celebrating

But Ander says it’s not celebration time yet. “I think there are lots of things that cause crime numbers to go in one direction or the other and I think it’s really hard to tell in the moment with any degree of confidence of what’s exactly driving the numbers to go up or to go down.”

Yolanda Fields, who works in the Austin and East Garfield Park neighborhoods, but lives near the Medical District said, “It’s hard to believe that the murder rate has gone down when things tend to happen in such close proximity to me. Even if statistically it’s decreasing, you don’t feel that way, because you’re so intimately involved in it.”

Fields said it’s important that residents actually feel safer and see visible signs of improvement in their neighborhoods. “We’ve got to have some serious economic development, and not just basketball camps. I understand the importance of providing a safe place for our children, but at the same time, it’s an economic issue,” Fields added.

Some Chicago residents say they’ve noticed a visible difference in the murder and crime rates in their neighborhoods.

Twenty-nine year old Corey Truman, who’s a barber in the East Garfield Park neighborhood said he’s seen the crime rate drop in the area. “I see a lot of police posted on the corner. A lot of the drugs and gunplay have slowed down. I grew up in this area and I’ve seen a lot of things that used to go on don’t go on anymore,” Truman said.

Likewise, Andrea McKinney, 37, owner of the barbershop where Truman works said she actually feels safer and sees a drop in crime. “It has a little bit. I haven’t heard about anything big happening over the last three months or so… but I think you can always do more,” McKinney said.

A new strategy to fight crime

In the last year, McCarthy and Emanuel have teamed up to reduce crime, beginning with a gang audit identifying every gang member, turf and who they’re in conflict with, making the information available in a database and into the hands of officers patrolling the streets.

“Retaliation is the first thing that we need to stop,” McCarthy told theGrio earlier this year.

Additionally, McCarthy says his officers are working to eliminate individual narcotics markets, so when they discover places where drugs are being sold, they dismantle, make arrests and bring city services to the area to clean up the drug markets and create more economic opportunity for the neighborhood. Police and the City of Chicago are also increasing more after-school programs, summer jobs.

After Chicago Public Schools voted to close 50 schools, the city has announced plans to enhance its safe passage program for kids traveling to and from school. During forums and rallies on school closings in the last few months, safety of kids’ who will have to cross gang lines to attend new schools ranked as one of the top concerns of parents.

“[Police] have been really following up and prioritizing strategically focusing on those [tactics],” Ander said, “Deploying resources around the neighborhoods, times of day, kinds of crimes and really focusing on specific individuals that are sort of high impact in terms of their involvement in crimes.”

Residents and critics worry whether or not the crime reduction strategy is sustainable. With the tactics, Chicago has more feet on the street in the form of extra help from officers. Chicago police have logged enough overtime hours to burn through more than 75 percent of the city’s $38 million overtime budget before June. Emanuel said at a press event earlier this week that the city would find a way to pay for the extra help.

Englewood resident Marvin Penrose, 49, said he hadn’t seen a visible change in the crime drop in his neighborhood, but notes that for the city to become safer, responsibility starts at a very local level. “It’s the community. It’s on us as a people in the neighborhood to want more or to want better. It’s on us to call the police when we see crime,” Penrose said.

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung