Best Defense

Is Chicago’s violence so bad that it is becoming a national security problem?

By Jesse Sinaiko Best Defense Chicago bureau chief The short answer to the question is no. It must be remembered that from the early ‘70s up through the ‘90s the number of murders was over twice what it is now — we almost hit 1,000 in ‘74 (970 I think), held steady in the 800s ...


By Jesse Sinaiko

Best Defense Chicago bureau chief

The short answer to the question is no. It must be remembered that from the early ‘70s up through the ‘90s the number of murders was over twice what it is now — we almost hit 1,000 in ‘74 (970 I think), held steady in the 800s and 900s in the ‘90s, and started to diminish in the naughts. In 2011 they hit a low of 453 and then spiked up to 506 last year. So in Chicago the murder rate has been cut in half since the really big gang wars of the ‘70s and the crack wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Cops talk about demographic  trends — fewer young men — and having locked up most of the really bad guys.

However, as Chicago’s rate declined, other big U.S. cities’ rates declined much more. In NYC in 2012 there were an all-time low number, at 414, in a city twice as big as Chicago.

These murders are about 80 percent gang-related. They are concentrated in certain areas of the West and South sides, although there are plenty of gang shootings all over the city. And although the general trend over the past 40 years is down — way down, Chicago is spiking while everywhere else they continue to diminish. In the neighborhoods where the preponderance of murders occur, there is a higher toll than there is in any built up area in any of the war zones the United States has been involved with, probably since Vietnam. Baghdad in the middle of the last decade was undoubtedly worse.

Of course there is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing over this, as there should be, and there are a few obvious answers:

  • Fewer cops on the streets due to retirements, budget constraints, and some hiring issues.
  • The disbanding of some tactical squads because two of the most elite spent a lot of the ‘90s and some of the naughts ripping off dope dealers and selling their dope, along with acting like semi-terrorists in their AOs. Several guys got very long sentences. They also disbanded tac squads to flesh out beat-cop manpower on the streets.
  • Issues around beat deployment: Many safe neighborhoods have more cops on the streets than they need, to the detriment of the hoods that need the manpower. It’s political. Every time they try to pull people off beats in good neighborhoods the residents yell to their alderman and it’s reversed.
  • Razing of the high-rise projects. People who lived in these hell-holes, sometimes for generations, were given a Section 8 voucher and wished good luck with no social support at all. So they moved into areas — high-density already with lots of apartment buildings, with landlords willing to take Section 8 housing vouchers, and they took their issues from the projects to pretty good neighborhoods that couldn’t take the stress, along with the economic troubles that everyone has been experiencing.
  • Finally and most important — and most interesting — is the story about how a strategy worked on a tactical level and yet made things worse. Starting ten or more years ago, the agreed method was to take out gang leaders — middle level guys, battalion and regimental commanders if you will, working up to the generals if possible. The operational street unit — the kids who sell the dope and do the shooting — is called a clique. Usually teenagers. A colonel will control a series of cliques in an area. It’s a quite military structure and has been for a long time. So the cops took out a lot of older guys who controlled things and in many cases sent the generals, even COs, to prison for a long time.

But when the heads were cut off, the bodies didn’t die at all — they just kept on doing it with no control from above whatsoever and chaos ensued, starting in 2010 more or less. Cliques started shooting at each other even if they were in the same gang. No control from above, but the guns, dope, and hormone-infused and/or ADHD teenagers are still around. There is now a theory that lead poisoning (old paint dust breathed by infants) is a factor as well. And the guns aren’t the Saturday-night-specials of 25 years ago — they are AK-47s, Glocks with 30-round clips, etc. The guns are more deadly and the rounds are more deadly, so more killings and serious woundings. There’s a difference between a kid in a car shooing six shots from a revolver in fairly slow succession at low velocity, and a kid with a 9mm Glock with a huge clip below, spraying a street with 25-30 shots from a light-triggered semi-auto. It really is spray and pray. And more innocents get his as a result — little kids, moms, etc. Kids get hit in their beds as the slugs go through walls.

As long as these areas remain economically and socially devastated, this will not be just a police problem. It’s a political and public health issue as well, maybe more so, because, as in Vietnam, you ain’t gonna stop ‘em as long as there is a birth rate. And there will always be that, so there had better be jobs, education, and at least the sort of opportunity a town like Chicago used to offer: jobs in the stockyards and the steel mills and associated heavy industries, now of course mainly gone.

Obviously it’s complex and closely intersticed with all sorts of sociopolitical and economic issues. The cops do the best they can. I’m not a Rahm fan, and some of this can be laid at his feet, but it started well before he got here. I know people who live in some of these neighborhoods and they do sometimes talk about the Army or National Guard, but generally I think it’ll improve somewhat as the economy improves. The huge economic hits of 2008-2009 were devastating to neighborhoods that were already or still on the edge. The general trend away from upward mobility has hurt very badly; these people are strivers but there are far fewer opportunities to realize any improvement in their lives. Areas that have been solidly middle-class are now taking real hits. There is a good series that started recently in the NY Times about a neighborhood called Chatham that is in this situation.

Still, it should be realized that, as bad as it is, it’s still way down from the days of total urban decay of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Jesse Sinaiko, who recently was promoted to be Best Defense’s Chicago bureau chief, is a business and nonprofit consultant in Chicago. Born, raised, and educated on the city’s South side, he continues to live there after a spell in beautiful Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1990s. He has been an amateur military historian since his days at the University of Chicago.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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