After a Horrific Summer of Murder, Chicago Trying a Bold New Approach

by David Kennedy, September 2012

On June 27, a 7-year-old girl named Heaven Sutton was selling candy on her front lawn in Chicago’s North Austin neighborhood when she was shot in the back—caught in the crossfire between rival gang members. On Aug. 18 alone, six people were murdered across the city—a new record. The following weekend saw nine homicides and almost 40 shootings.

With crime down nationally year after year—a trend not slowed even by the recession—and other big cities like New York and Los Angeles seeing steady homicide reductions, the situation in Chicago appears even more dire. By the end of March, homicides citywide were already up by two thirds compared with 2011 (they have since come down).

But what the sensational news reports miss is that Chicago’s story is less different from the rest of America than we might like to believe—and this could end up being a good thing.

In direct response to the street scene driving the violence, Chicago’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, is working with criminologists and other researchers to spearhead a new response that could represent the next major advance in how America polices serious violence.

At its core, the new approach focuses not on crime “hot spots,” the traditional target of law enforcement, but on “hot people”—the small number of individuals who account for the vast majority of the crime and murders.

To understand why the “hot people” approach has the potential to be so transformative, it’s important to understand that Chicago’s homicide and shooting problem is overwhelmingly a gang problem. Both victims and offenders tend to have extensive criminal records, and the Chicago Police Department reports that 77 percent of this year’s dead were killed in incidents involving gang members on one or both sides of the gun. It is also one of African-American victimization: blacks make up about one third of the city’s population, but more than three quarters of its homicide victims.

The national numbers are painfully similar: research in city after city shows that gangs and similar criminal groups—drug crews and the like—are at the heart of homicide: groups collectively making up less than half of 1 percent of a city’s population are regularly associated with three quarters or so of all killings. And black men constitute about 6 percent of the population but around 40 percent of murder victims.

After Heaven Sutton’s murder, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had had enough. “Take your gang conflict away from a 7-year-old,” he said at a press conference, his voice shaking with rage. “Who raised you? You have a 7-year-old selling lemonade. You’re a member of a gang coming to get lemonade and another gang member is driving by. Where were you raised and who raised you? Stay away from the kids!”

In the face of this unremitting violence, McCarthy, who came to Chicago after a career in the New York Police Department and a stop in extremely violent Newark, N.J., is effectively reinventing the Chicago Police Department.

With backing from the MacArthur Foundation and a group of outside applied researchers—including Tracey Meares and Andrew Papachristos, both formerly of the University of Chicago and now at Yale, and me—McCarthy is making two fundamental moves.

The first is the new focus on “hot” groups and people. If a relative handful of gangs, crews, and the like drive most of the violence, it would seem to be common sense to make going after them a priority. But it is a common sense that has traditionally escaped law enforcement, which has tended to focus on hot places instead: the superheated neighborhoods, precincts, and corners where most violence occurs. This approach can be very effective, but to borrow a phrase: corners don’t kill people, people kill people.

In other words, even in a neighborhood with a horrible gang problem, most people are not gang members, so focusing on the neighborhood misses the point. I’ve seen gang violence produce police sweeps that net hundreds of arrests but not one gang member.

Instead, McCarthy is taking a cue from the New York “CompStat” model he helped invent under Commissioner Bill Bratton—the management tools, the focus on accountability, and the relentlessness about results—and he’s bringing it to bear on hot people, and especially on hot gangs.

Using a combination of old-school street intelligence and new social science, the Chicago Police Department is systematically identifying the relatively tiny networks of hyperactive offenders that are responsible for an overwhelming share of the violence. For example, Papachristos can identify what he calls Chicago’s “small world of murder” by applying the same “social-network analysis” insights and mathematics Amazon uses to tell you what books you want to read.

“I understand the historical divide between police and communities of color—it’s rooted in the history of this country,” McCarthy said.

And it is indeed a small world: everyone in the core networks makes up only about 4 percent of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods—but being in this relatively tiny group of people increases your vulnerability to crime exponentially.

Starting with homicide and shooting victims and using readily available police data—say, who was arrested with whom—Papachristos can isolate social networks of staggeringly high risk. For example, simply being in an arrested-with network with a homicide victim increases your own chance of being murdered by 900 percent. While those with the closest links to homicide victims are at the most elevated risk, each additional “handshake” away reduces that risk by nearly 60 percent.

“Criminologists have known for a century that it’s who you mess around with that gets you in trouble,” Papachristos told me. “Now we have the techniques to unpack that with rigor.”

In these settings, traditional predictors are virtually useless—nearly every young man in such neighborhoods can be considered “at risk”—but this network information is genuinely useful. Every police district in Chicago now has a roster of the “factions”—local sets of the larger but crumbling Chicago gang families like Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples—operating in their area, as well as their beefs, their alliances, and their members. The CPD is systematically tracking homicides and shootings by faction and identifying the most violent. CPD commanders are no longer asked how many arrests they’ve made, but rather: Which are your most violent factions? What are you doing about it? The same data can be used to direct community interventions, social services, and other non-police measures to exactly the right people, with unprecedented precision.

McCarthy’s second major move is to fix the CPD’s relationship with the community, part of a growing recognition among law-enforcement leaders that the police cannot function without what scholars call “legitimacy”: that is, the belief by citizens that they are being policed fairly and with respect. What was once regarded as a soft “community relations” sidebar is now understood to be an utterly crucial driver of crime on the one hand, and crime prevention on the other.

How does this play out in practice? A young man who knows who shot his brother has a choice: he can call the cops, or he can get a gun and shoot the guy himself. Neighborhoods that are angry and mistrustful—with “stop snitching” codes that favor even known shooters over the police—produce a lot of the latter.

“I understand the historical divide between police and communities of color—it’s rooted in the history of this country,” McCarthy said in a local public-radio interview. He’d previously dismissed common beliefs such as “the CIA invented crack to destroy black neighborhoods,” but he takes them very seriously now.

“The most visible arm of government is a police force, and the institutionalized governmental programs that promoted racist policies that were enforced by police departments in this country are part of the African-American history in this country,” McCarthy said. “And we have to recognize it because recognition is the first step towards finding a cure towards what is ailing us.”

The key to the new approach is that there is a clear link between the focus on hot people and the focus on legitimacy. Traditional policing in dangerous neighborhoods can easily deteriorate to a place where everybody gets treated like a criminal, where men become weighed down with criminal records before they are old enough to vote, and where parents have “the talk” with their kids about how to behave when they are inevitably stopped by police. Focusing on the “4 percent” tells the neighborhood that the cops understand and respect the difference between the hot guys and everybody else. And legitimacy researchers like Meares have shown that people with such beliefs are more likely to obey the law, take crime-prevention measures of their own, and work with law enforcement when necessary.

The big question is, Will it work? There’s evidence that it already is working. Much of McCarthy’s larger agenda is being piloted in the city’s hottest neighborhoods through the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, or VRS. Supported by MacArthur and the outside researchers, VRS has been fielding teams of law enforcement, community figures, and social-service providers who meet directly with gang factions, articulate community norms against violence, offer gang members help to get out of the life, and spell out the enforcement measures that will be taken against violent gangs.

And that’s the silver lining in all of this: While the headlines were reporting that Chicago’s homicide was soaring, homicide in the most traditionally active districts in the city, where VRS has been implemented, was actually down almost 40 percent.

Both McCarthy’s departmentwide approach and VRS have to be proved over time in the field. But the intent for both is to design and institutionalize a new way of addressing violence that works, lasts, and strengthens America’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. The good news is that if it works in Chicago, it can work anywhere.