Chicago police monitoring social justice demonstration. Photo credit: Matt Bero

Skyrocketing gun violence in Chicago continues

6 mins read

Leadership and law enforcement point fingers at each other as violent crime rates reach some of the city’s highest recorded levels.

On Saturday evening, Paris Lawrence was shot in the head at point blank range by two unidentified individuals at a East 71st Street Mobil gas station in the Park Manor region of the windy city. Shortly thereafter, he succumbed to his injuries at the University of Chicago Medical Center. In the same incident, a 22-year-old woman was also shot. Lawrence‘s family is now looking for any leads as both joined the more than 73 homicides thus far in 2022.

Last year, the third largest city in the U.S. saw a record breaking 800 homicides. By October 2021, shootings were up 220 percent; a trend that has not been seen in well over two decades. 

“This has been a difficult year for everyone and there has never been a tougher time to be a police officer in this country, but the men and women of the Chicago Police Department have tirelessly served every neighborhood every day,” Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown noted.

| Read: Chicago commissioners want to bring in UN Peacekeepers for gun violence

Local law enforcement blames the prevalence of crime on gun accessibility. In a statement regarding 2021 year-end data, the Chicago police department (CPD) reportedly seized a record 12,000 firearms, including 706 assault weapons—over 60 percent more than 2020 totals in all. To paint the picture, police say this is an increase from the 7,823 guns collected in 2019, which equates to an average of almost 651 guns monthly. In 2020, gun retrievals were 9,233, or an uptick of 770 arms per month.

Reportedly, Superintendent Brown is a staunch advocate for strict federal sentencing guidelines to effectively address the national wave of gun violence. He believes harsh penalties for straw buyers, or people who legally purchase guns for those who do not qualify, will further deter illegalities. 

In line with the city’s top brass, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is requesting agents from the U.S. Attorney General’s office to join local law enforcement with getting drugs and firearms from gangs off the streets. She also criticized Chicago’s court system for allowing violent offenders out on electronic monitoring instead of detention, which she believes is “failing the city.” 

Adding to the mayor’s attempts to quell firearm-related crime surges, she is demanding Cook County’s chief judge, Timothy C. Evans, to eradicate the practice. Chief Judge Evan’s office claims to have never received any such request from the mayor. 

“No excuses, we must do better,” asserted Mayor Lightfoot in a December 2021 press conference. “The cumulative effects of having almost 2,300 violent, dangerous [electronically-surveilled] offenders on the streets has reached a tipping point.”

No one cause 

This is not Mayor Lightfoot’s first effort in attempting to combat the rise. In 2015, Mayor Lightfoot, then-president of the Chicago Police Board, was appointed to the five-member Task Force on Police Accountability, initiated by prior mayor Rahm Emanuel. A move law enforcement has continually criticized her for as killings have skyrocketed since then. 

Moreover, the former prosecutor implemented a comprehensive three-year violence reduction plan, “Our City, Our Safety,” in September 2020. A part of initiatives concentrating on low income communities of color, the plan aimed to reinforce communal bonds between locals and law enforcement. 

The measure is said to focus resources on 15 at-risk neighborhoods that account for nearly 50 percent of the crime–particularly, in the west and south sides. In the analysis, gun violence was found to disproportionately affect poor communities. Still, others believe officials are pointing fingers at the acts rather than address the circumstances causing them. 

“[W]hile guns are clearly a big, big factor, police chiefs and prosecutors really don’t know what’s driving these killings this year…And all the experts say, look. It’s the pandemic,” expounded NPR correspondent Eric Westervelt. “So there was this hope and expectation that the killings would level out or go down in 2021. And that didn’t happen.”

Currently, if a citizen feels as though an officer abused their authority, that person can file a formal complaint. Since 2000, approximately 7,000 complaints have been filed per year. Nonetheless, many of these allegations are buried in internal records. That is, until an ordinance was launched requiring the city’s Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety to maintain a public database of closed police complaints and disciplinary records in May of last year. The measure was passed after a compromise between city council and Mayor Lightfoot was reached because the latter thought the database would be too expensive.  

As well, there is The Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), which compiles and publishes police misconduct cases. According to their findings, seven percent of the over 247,000 complaints from 1988 to 2018 have led to disciplinary action.

Still, the methods are not perfect as seen with the covered-up murder of LaQuan McDonald.  

The minor cover up

At this point, the excessive violence police clock in to deal with, and local residents bear with daily, cannot be blown off. Sure, the pandemic is a contributing factor, but it has been for every ill of the past two years. However, it should not be the default umbrella excuse for such an increase. For instance, CPD’s history of brutality proves no one single source is responsible.

On October 20, 2014, CPD officer Jason Van Dyke murdered 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald. Allegedly intoxicated on PCP, the African-American minor wielded a knife he did not wish to surrender but did not use according to CPD bodycam footage. Not a part of the responding unit, Van Dyke was called in as backup.

Although the video showed no such thing, he stated McDonald lunged at him. To the contrary, McDonald was shown to walk away from the officer’s direction. Within seconds of arriving on the scene, Van Dyke had shot the boy 16 times. McDonald was later pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Subsequently, Chicago inspector general Joseph Ferguson’s investigation found 16 CPD officers, including leadership like Lieutenant Anthony Wojcik and Sargent Stephen Franko, obstructed evidence and exaggerated claims of McDonald’s behavior to protect Van Dyke. Of the 11 officers Ferguson recommended be fired, only four were sacked.

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Ultimately, the disgraced Van Dyke was charged with second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in 2018. This marked the first time in about 50 years that an officer was convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in the Illinois municipality. Although sentenced to seven years, the ex-officer served just three before being quietly released from prison earlier this month.

“I understand why [the early release of Jason Van Dyke and seeming inequitable treatment regarding punishment] continues to feel like a miscarriage of justice, especially when many Black and [B]rown men get sentenced to so much more prison time for having committed far lesser crimes,” Mayor Lightfoot said in a release.

Indeed, no officer who engaged in the systemic cover-up was convicted of a crime. Although acquitted, only David March, Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh stood trial. In response to Ferguson’s report, the police attacked the inspector general.

“The Fraternal Order of Police has articulated in several instances our strongly-held belief that the Inspector General’s office, particularly under Joe Ferguson, is often little more than a political witch hunt of our members, none more so than the manner by which his office generated criminal indictments of the three officers in connection with the Laquan McDonald shooting,” said union representatives.

After 12 years at the post, Ferguson departed from the position In October 2021. Nevertheless, he listed a slew of misconduct by city employees in his last quarterly report. 

Racial disparities

Presently, Chicago is about half white and half minority. Namely, Black and Latinos who cumulatively make up about 58 percent of residents. Two thirds of the population falls between the ages of 18 and 64. Roughly, one out of five people lives in poverty.

In spite of that, only the white population is thriving, as their average income is over $10,000 higher than national averages. On the other hand, minorities across the board make less than their counterparts in other portions of the nation. 

Discriminatory, early 20th century-era racial practices like racial steering or gerrymandering have exacerbated said inequalities. Ultimately, contributing to Chicago’s reputation as being one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. African Ameicans are largely alienated in areas like housing and politics, even education. Hence, creating poverty pockets like the south side. 

“The story in Chicago is one of access — or rather — a lack thereof,” wrote the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative (CFED) of Chicago in their wealth inequality report. “These stark racial boundaries transcend real estate and have had far-reaching implications on whole communities’ access to healthcare, financial services, and, especially, education.”

As Black History Month draws to a close, the sad irony is the Black bodies piling up is proportional to the amount of crime present in their backyards. This is especially true for younger Chicagoans. 

“Without intentional efforts to ensure equitable access to such services as education, housing, healthcare, and banking, the city is at risk of continuing along the path of racial inequality and segregation,” expressed CFED.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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