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Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Chicago, Summer Crime, and the Slide Towards Detroit by Mark Bergen

[ Mark Bergen writes a blog called Econometro at forbes.com. He wrote this piece about the rising murder wave there. I'm including it as part of my State of Chicago series, but I should note that it was written independently and is not intended to endorse any of my particular views regarding Chicago - Aaron. ]

Here in Chicago we are fretting about crime. Philadelphia is hosting a jump in violence, with an 86 percent rise in homicides in June alone. But, otherwise, we are mostly alone. Other major cities are continuing the decades-long decline in crime rates, while Chicago has seen a nearly 40 percent spike in murders this year. (You can see a nicely visualized breakdown of the city’s crime, by ward, with this newly released interactive tool.)

The crime spike recently spread to the Magnificent Mile, the squeaky clean shopping district downtown. It led one Alderman, granted anonymity perhaps to escape the wrath of Mayor Emanuel, to suggest that these shootings in safe areas mark “when we start becoming Detroit.” That taps into a huge fear here—turning into the gutted city up north. Lines like that, though, are usually associated with simple, sensationalized ideas about urban violence.

One person who has spent much of his career dispelling these easy notions of crime is Jens Ludwig, a researcher at the University of Chicago. He has an op-ed in Crain’s this morning laying out three reasons why Chicagoans should be concerned with crime. One, in particular, has enormous implications for business in the city:

Third, no one should want Chicago to turn into Detroit — but that’s the direction that violence leads cities. Research by my University of Chicago colleague Steve Levitt and Julie Cullen of the University of California, San Diego, showed that for every homicide that occurs in a city, total population declines by 70 people. The 2010 census showed that Chicago had shrunk by 200,000 people in the past decade. If Chicago had New York’s success in controlling violence (that city’s homicide rate is about one-third ours right now, even though our rates were similar in the early 1990s), Chicago’s population would have held steady or even grown the past 10 years.

This, I believe, is the research he cites. Crime isn’t the only factor pushing city residents out; for that decade of Chicago loss, violent crime rates were steadily falling. But it is a factor, and population loss certainly is a drag on a city’s economic prowess.

That parlays nicely to New York, where the city continues to suppress its crime and expand its economic force. The legal scholar Franklin E. Zimring has a lengthy, nuanced article titled, tellingly, “How New York Beat Crime”:

Once again, the simple explanations are not of much help. Some of the authorities’ more prominent campaigns were, in fact, little more than slogans, including “zero tolerance” and the “broken windows” strategy — the theory that measures such as fixing windows, cleaning up graffiti and cracking down on petty crimes prevents a neighborhood from entering into a spiral of dilapidation and decay and ultimately results in fewer serious crimes. For instance, the NYPD did not increase arrests for prostitution and was not consistent over time in its enforcement of gambling or other vice crimes.

But other campaigns seem to have had a significant effect on crime. Had the city followed through on its broken-windows policing, it would have concentrated precious resources in marginal neighborhoods rather than in those with the highest crime. In fact, the police did the opposite: they emphasized ‘hotspots’ a strategy that had been proved effective in other cities and that almost certainly made a substantial contribution in New York.

Despite the myths of a tough crackdown on crime, pushed by, among others, one-time mayors, New York’s imprisonment rate fell relative to other cities. A sharp fall in illegal drug use in the city helped quite a bit. Zimring also touches upon the role of aggressive, stop-and-frisk policing in the violence decline, though he notes its impact is small, its costs potentially large. Like every other factor, it eschews simple explanations. For those interested in crime policies, the whole thing is worth a read.

Following Ludwig, Zimring does arrive at a simple, cost effective recommendation: “First of all, cops matter.” In loads of studies, more police seem to be the only factor neatly correlated with reduced crime. Facing red budgets, both Detroit and Chicago have shrunk their forces. Unlike leadership in the former city, Emanuel seems to be avoiding the broken windows tactic, opting, according to the Times, to strategically target gangs with the statistical approach of Superintendent Garry McCarthy, the police chief who oversaw much of New York’s decline. McCarthy’s current department, though, has roughly 450 uniformed positions unfilled.

That Times article ends with a Chicago resident lamenting that “we’ve lost our way.” It’s a natural expression for someone at the center of truly depressing violence, and a fine capstone about a subject, city crime, bereft of easy answers. But the idea that a kid in Chicago is locked into a criminal path, or that the city is on some unstoppable decline, isn’t necessarily true. Here’s Zimring:

Perhaps the most optimistic lesson to take from New York’s experience is that high rates of homicides and muggings are not hardwired into a city’s populations, cultures and institutions.

Chicago need not become Detroit, and Detroit need not remain itself.

This post originally appeared at forbes.com on June 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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