It was movie night in Demarco Kennedy’s Far South Side apartment.
The 32-year-old railroad worker’s wife and three children waited for him in the living room, with plans to watch the animated film “Rio 2.” He sat at his dining room table, paying bills.
Kennedy’s kids, coached in the past by their wary parents, dropped to the floor.
As the children attempted to crawl into a hallway, Kennedy’s wife saw him fall over. The left side of his face was streaked with blood from a bullet wound.
“He was grabbing my hand real hard. He was trying to say something and he couldn’t,” Nicole Cooper said Tuesday, recounting the August evening when her husband was slain. “And when he released my hand, that’s when he passed.”
With that random bullet through the family’s window, Kennedy became another homicide victim in Chicago, one of more than 750 in 2016.
A persistent reality for some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, violence unnerved far reaches of the city in 2016 as shootings and homicides soared. Not since the drug-fueled bloodshed of the mid-1990s had the city witnessed such a toll.
Some neighborhoods, already scarred and gutted by years of violence, suffered inordinately. But the danger spread into more neighborhoods, too, and randomness became an all-too-familiar element to many shootings.
Grim milestones added up: The deadliest month in 23 years. The deadliest day in 13 years. 4,300 people shot. As the year wound down, with the promise of a new year coming soon, a violent Christmas Day.
“It’s a shame. It’s a shame,” said Rafi Peterson, a community activist in the Chicago Lawn community on the Southwest Side. “Those lives cannot be replaced.
“How did this happen? Why is this continuing to happen?”
For months, police, politicians and residents have asked the same questions.
In a recent interview at police headquarters, Superintendent Eddie Johnson and his second-in-command, First Deputy Superintendent Kevin Navarro, speculated on the rise in homicides. They blamed, in part, a perceived willingness by criminals to settle disputes with guns, and what they say is a failure on the part of the justice system to hold them accountable.
“We used to respond to gang fights in progress … now we respond to shots fired,” Navarro said. “People fought. Now everyone picks up the gun. Just like that.”
Through Dec. 26, 754 people were slain in Chicago compared with 480 during the same period last year, an increase of 57 percent, according to official Police Department statistics. The last time Chicago tallied a similar number of killings was in 1997, when 761 people were slain. Shooting incidents also jumped by 46 percent this year to 3,512 from 2,398, the statistics show.
What’s more, crimes went up by double digits in nearly every major category, including criminal sexual assaults, robberies and thefts.
Month by month, Chicago’s homicide numbers have ticked upward. On cold days and warm days, snowy days and during holiday weekends alike.
Kennedy’s slaying on Aug. 9 in the Rosemoor neighborhood was among the 92 homicides across Chicago that month, the most the city had seen for a single month since July 1993 when there were 99. The weekend immediately before Halloween ended with 59 people shot, 17 fatally, the deadliest weekend of 2016. In November, homicides totaled 77, the worst for that month since 78 in 1994.
The Police Department statistics do not include about an additional 20 killings on area expressways, police-involved shootings, other homicides in which a person was killed in self-defense or death investigations.
Looking back to 1998, when Chicago recorded 704 homicides, the city was in the midst of a homicide decline from more than 900 earlier in the decade. The turn of the millennium saw a bottoming out, with homicides dropping to 453 at the end of 2004 — around the time the Police Department began relying on computerized data to know where to deploy officers where they’re needed the most. The tally rose again somewhat, then went down again in 2014, when the city recorded 416 slayings.
As the homicide numbers headed upward this year, crime experts cautioned against making year-to-year comparisons, arguing that long-term trends give a better understanding of how the level of violence in a city has changed over time.
Still, even though it has a lower homicide rate than many U.S. cities with smaller populations, Chicago by far continued to lead the nation in actual number of slayings.
The city’s homicides outpaced New York City and Los Angeles combined, even though their populations far exceed Chicago’s 2.7 million people. According to official statistics through Dec. 18, the most recent publicly available, New York and Los Angeles had a combined 613 homicides, fewer than Chicago’s total. In addition, there were a combined 2,306 shooting victims in the two cities, about half of Chicago’s total.
Crime experts cannot point to any definitive factors for the increases in shootings and homicides in Chicago this year. But some experts have come to one conclusion: Chicago’s dramatic rise in homicides this year is the highest of any major city.
A draft released Thursday of a new study from the University of Chicago Crime Lab noted that of the five largest U.S. cities by population, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston, Chicago has seen the largest single-year homicide increase of the last 25 years.
The study also noted that the increase in slayings this year was “sudden and sustained,” with each month recording more homicides than the same months in 2015. But they pointed out that other cities throughout the country have also seen increases in homicides.
“The fact that many other American cities saw homicides increase in 2015 and 2016 suggests that part of what Chicago experienced this past year may not be unique to our city,” according to the study.
The study’s authors were careful to say they could not explain why Chicago’s violence has gone up, though they said weather patterns, declines in finances for social services, and any changes in police response couldn’t be definitively linked to the sudden and dramatic increase. They did note, however, that more homicides were committed with guns in Chicago than other cities.
In 2016, about 91 percent of Chicago’s homicides were committed with a firearm, up from 88 percent last year, the study showed. When you compare that with 1998, the last time Chicago recorded over 700 homicides, about 76 percent of those victims were killed with guns, official Police Department statistics show.
Los Angeles’ homicides committed with guns averaged 72 percent from 2011 to 2015, and 60 percent in New York City, the study noted.
However, Jens Ludwig, a professor of social service administration, law and public policy at the University of Chicago, said that the study could not conclude whether there were actually more guns on Chicago’s streets this year compared with past years.
“There’s no way to know if more guns are flooding into Chicago because there’s no definitive measure of the numbers of guns in Chicago,” said Ludwig, one of the authors of the study.
The year was tumultuous for the Chicago Police Department, as it struggled to contain the rise in violence while also undergoing reforms sparked by the release of 2014 video that showed Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. A torrent of street protests followed.
A wide-ranging civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into the city’s police practices was launched. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder and Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
Johnson, in the recent interview, said negative attitudes toward the police began to grow in 2014 when a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo. The McDonald shooting intensified that distrust and anger in Chicago.
These incidents diminished the respect that police once had, emboldening criminals, Johnson said.
“The level of disrespect I see for police now, I’ve never seen it like this in 28 years,” he said. “The willingness of the bad guy to engage a police officer, I’ve never, it’s just different. … Before, they didn’t engage the police like they do now.
“Now, the police are perceived as the bad guy, and they’re not given the benefit of the doubt anymore,” Johnson said. “Back then in ’98, it was the total reverse. … Don’t think that the bad guy doesn’t look at what’s (happening) on CNN and say, ‘Oh, they’re really giving it to the police. Now is my time to shine.'”
Indeed, officers have told the Tribune that morale was lower this year. Officers described taking a more cautious approach to their work, concerned they could end up in a viral video, sued or fired.
The Tribune chronicled two key measures that appeared to show cops scaled back on their interaction with the public. Arrests, which have generally been on the decline in recent years, dropped sharply through Dec. 25 to 84,644, a 24 percent decrease from 111,499 a year earlier and the fewest in at least five years, according to official police statistics.
Over that same period, street stops — in which officers stop people on foot and document the interaction — have plunged to 106,570, down 82 percent from 599,590 a year earlier. Officers complain a longer, time-consuming form that police must fill out for each stop has played a significant part in the drop.
However, the draft U. of C. study released Thursday questioned whether Chicago’s decline in street stops and arrests truly could be a driving factor of violence, noting that when New York’s stops dropped in recent years, homicides did not dramatically increase. Still, the researchers noted that reducing street stops could have a different effect “across cities,” but that the factor isn’t well understood yet.
Critics of the department say that decades of officer misconduct and the department’s failure to discipline officers has also played a large role in the public’s mistrust of police.
Johnson acknowledged there is a widened gap between police and minority communities, a distrust that he and some crime experts believe has contributed to the increase in violence.
“We treated the black community inappropriately in a lot of instances,” he said during the interview. “You cannot go into a community and stop everybody. You see a man with a Comcast uniform on … walking his wife to the grocery store, and you’re stopping him. Why?
“That creates a lot of mistrust between the community and the Police Department,” Johnson continued. “We recognize that we did treat certain parts of this city inappropriately. And that was our fault. So we have to correct that. But you can’t correct it until you acknowledge that it was a problem.”
Guns and gangs
Police officials have also blamed much of Chicago’s violence on the flow of illegal firearms through dangerous neighborhoods, mainly on the South and West sides. That problem, experts say, is far worse in Chicago than in New York and Los Angeles.
Johnson has spoken often about legislation in the works in Springfield aimed at requiring repeat gun offenders to serve longer prison terms.
Officials have also blamed an intractable gang problem in Chicago for the violence. Once highly structured and hierarchal, Chicago’s street gangs have fractured into small factions. Petty disagreements and personal disputes fueled by social media can quickly turn violent, police officials have said.
Gang expert John Hagedorn noted that by the late 1990s, the organized gang wars for power and dominance were starting to become less commonplace. Gang leaders went to jail. The nationwide crack epidemic was coming to an end, causing the gangs to make less money in narcotics than before, he said. Chicago’s sprawling public housing complexes were also being torn down, Hagedorn noted, sending gang members to different parts of the city where other gangs were in control.
All of these elements shifted the nature of the city’s gangs from “a culture of obedience” to “a culture of autonomy,” he said.
“Kids were off on their own. The nature of the violence swings,” said Hagedorn, a professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Rather than violent orders from the top … violence today is local between sects and it’s spontaneous, not structured. And there’s nobody around to control it.”
Johnson said the department is trying to utilize its so-called strategic subject list to beat back gangs. The department uses a computerized algorithm to identify about 1,400 people, mostly gang members, considered most likely to shoot someone or become a victim of violence. Once they’re identified, the department tries to contact these people, warn them of the consequences of their lifestyles and try to steer them on the right path by offering them an array of social services.
Neighborhoods under fire
Most of the violence in 2016 has been concentrated on the South and West sides, in communities struggling with decades of poverty, entrenched segregation, gangs, rampant narcotics sales and other social ills.
Two of the city’s historically most violent police districts — Harrison and Englewood — account for almost one-fourth of Chicago’s homicides and shooting incidents. But, violence has touched most of the city, spiking in nearly all of the 22 patrol districts.
Harrison, a West Side district that includes communities such as West Garfield Park and North Lawndale, has recorded the worst violence. Through Dec. 25, 92 people were killed, a 92 percent increase over the 48 people slain a year earlier, official department statistics show. Shooting incidents rose to 469, up 74 percent from 270 a year earlier.
One block in West Garfield Park, the 4400 block of West Monroe Street, has seen at least 10 people shot this year, one of them fatally, according to a Tribune analysis. The block is just north of the Eisenhower Expressway, nicknamed the “Heroin Highway” because of its easy access for drug-buying suburbanites. Conflicts over lucrative drug spots throughout the area fuel much of the violence.
Residents there spoke of aimless youth and abandoned buildings, where squatters live and crime breeds. While objecting to the block as being described as dangerous, one resident said she is careful not to let people congregate in front of her apartment building.
The resident, who asked not to be named, raised her three children on the block. They were steered away from gang life through her strict parenting, she said.
“If I, me and my husband, did not put our foot down, our children could have been a product of the streets,” she said. “My husband told my children, my two boys, ‘I will kill you before I let the streets kill you.'”
Another resident said that level of protective parenting doesn’t happen for many.
“There’s too many young people who are out here who have no family, and so their friends become their family,” the resident said.
Some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods in the 1990s remain so today. Englewood and Deering on the Far South Side, and Harrison and Austin on the West Side, all saw steep rises in homicides and shooting incidents in 2016.
In 1998, the last time Chicago hit the 700-homicide mark, these districts accounted for the highest homicide totals in the city. But their tallies were even higher this year.
Other neighborhoods that had high homicide tallies in the late ’90s have changed. The Shakespeare District, which includes now-gentrified neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Logan Square, recorded 30 homicides in 1998, while tallying only nine in 2016.
And in 1998, the Monroe and Wood districts, which encompassed areas that have also since gentrified like East Ukrainian Village, West Town and Pilsen, had a combined 46 homicides. But since then, the two patrol districts have consolidated into what’s now known as the Near West District, which recorded 24 homicides through Sunday, the data show.
Asked what the Police Department can do better in the communities where violence has increased the most, Johnson said it all comes back to building trust between the police and public.
“Once we do that, then people will be more comfortable (with us),” he said. “If these guys are out there and they know that the community is not going to tell on them, what do you think they’re going to do? Come out tomorrow and do the same thing. Why not? There’s no consequence for it.”
Beyond the number of homicides, Chicago police’s success in solving murders continues to decline, with the department solving fewer homicides than the last two years.
The city’s clearance rate was 30 percent in 2016, department statistics through Dec. 14 show. Those numbers include homicides that were solved this year but committed in earlier years.
But when the old cases aren’t factored in, the clearance rate in 2016 was roughly 20 percent, with 145 homicides solved through Dec. 14, the data show.
In all of 2015, the clearance rate was 47 percent, but 25 percent when the older cases are stripped out. The clearance rate in 2014 was 51 percent, and 28 percent without the older cases.
‘Everybody’ has a gun
The persistent violence affects how some families approach everyday living. They choose not to go outside, they say. They avoid open windows and slow-moving cars. They dream of getting out.
Cooper, whose husband was shot in August, grew up in the Frank O. Lowden Homes public homes on the South Side. She began dating Kennedy in the eighth grade. They had three children together, their first when they were in high school.
“We just became adults at a young age,” said Cooper, now 32. “That’s my lifelong partner. I don’t know anyone else but him.”
Kennedy worked for about four years as a truck driver for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, including on the graveyard shift. Cooper, at one time, was working three jobs herself.
Even before his death, Cooper said their family often tried to stay away from windows in their apartment, fearful of gunfire in the neighborhood. When it occurred, Kennedy would always be the one to rush over to his children and tell them to get down, Cooper said.
They had planned to leave their neighborhood for a better one, waiting out their lease.
Cooper lamented that criminals with gun convictions are given lax penalties, if they’re caught at all.
“They don’t realize what they do to the families when they kill someone,” she said. “Me and my children are going to counseling once a week because they don’t know how to live without their father.”
Kennedy’s older brother, Lorenzo, cuts hair in a barber shop and will open his own place next month. He’s named it Demarco’s Barber Lounge, for his brother.
In his neighborhood growing up, making it to 30 without having “to sell drugs for the rest of your life” was a blessing, he said. And many younger people in Chicago today don’t have much of a chance to live that life, he said.
“I feel sorry for the kids that do know right from wrong … and end up losing their lives and getting shot in the process of a couple of little knuckleheads who … close their eyes when they shoot,” he said.
“Everybody got guns. Everybody got 30 bullets in their gun.”
(via: Chicago Tribune)