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U.S. Murder Rate Declines, But Chicago's Goes Up


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. The mass shootings of recent months tend to obscure a larger reality. If you live in the United States, it is a lot less likely than it used to be that someone will kill you. The nationwide murder rate has significantly declined the past couple of decades. Yet if you start plotting murders on a map, you will still find outbreaks - like outbreaks of disease.

Consider the city we'll focus on morning, Chicago, where 506 people were murdered in 2012. That's a sharp increase from the year before. We're going to start our conversation with NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. She's in our studios.

Carrie, welcome.


INSKEEP: So why would Chicago be so different than the national trend?

JOHNSON: I've been talking with some experts about this, including criminologists who have studied and worked in Chicago. And they point to some factors including Chicago's long history of warring street gangs - people who belong to real-life gangs that fight each other on a regular basis. There's also a lot of concentration of - pockets of poverty, and some educational deficits. I point out that for last year, for 2012, the murder rates were particularly high in the first quarter of last year. They started to stable off - level off, after that.

INSKEEP: OK. So you have different periods of time where there are spurts of homicides. Do you also have specific locations where you have spurts of homicides?

JOHNSON: Steve, this is something that criminologists are looking at right now. I talked with David Kennedy, who's at the John Jay College in New York; who's been studying Chicago, and other places around the country. He says we shouldn't even think of this as a national problem. Instead it's a really, really local problem.

DAVID KENNEDY: Even city homicide stories are not really about cities. They're about neighborhoods within cities. And even in the most dangerous hot spots, nearly everybody who lives there will not carry a gun, will not use a gun, is not a gang member. Homicide comes down to very, very small numbers of very singular people.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm beginning to think of one of those Internet maps, like Google Maps; where you can start with the United States but zoom into a state, to a city; and maybe beyond that, to a neighborhood. He's even telling us, look at a street corner; look at a house.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. And not just specific locations, but specific groups of people who interact with each other, like street gang members, because so many people in a particular neighborhood go about their daily lives without ever thinking of committing a criminal offense, let alone a murder.

INSKEEP: Most of the people there aren't involved in crime at all, and may not even be affected by crime.

JOHNSON: That's right, Steve. And in fact, it may be counterintuitive to be treating all those people like suspects because they may not want to cooperate with law enforcement when something bad does happen.

INSKEEP: OK. So do police in Chicago have their heads around this?

JOHNSON: Police in Chicago, and around the country, are increasingly focusing on what they call hot spots. These are particular areas where crime is high, and violent crime is particularly high. I spoke with Richard Rosenfeld, who's at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, who's studying this, too.

RICHARD ROSENFELD: The hot-spots effort - that is, putting police on the dots; putting police where crime is highly concentrated and very frequent - does tend to reduce crime without, by the way, moving crime around the corner, to areas where the police are less present.

INSKEEP: OK. So police are getting more and more thoughtful about this - more and more data-driven, thinking more and more locally -and yet there are places where the crime rate goes up; the homicide rate goes up. Chicago, which we're talking about, is one of them. So let us try to figure out why. We've contacted Alex Kotlowitz. He wrote the book "There Are No Children Here," about Chicago. He also co-produced a documentary called "The Interrupters," which profiled a program that aims to stop homicides.

Welcome to the program, sir.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, thanks, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: OK. So we know we want to think about this as a local problem, a neighborhood problem, even a street-corner problem; an individual problem. What's wrong in those Chicago hot spots, in a year like 2012 - when the rate went up?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you know, a couple of things. I mean, I think David Kennedy is right. It is a very localized problem. And, I mean, the blunt truth of the matter is that the vast majority of homicides, in a place like Chicago, take place in very poor, predominantly African-American and Latino communities. I mean, it's very concentrated. It's very easy to live in the city, and not be exposed to the violence at all.

But having said that, I think it's a mistake to think about it as just a gang problem; as a problem that doesn't affect even the good people living in these neighborhoods. I mean, you look at the homicide rates in Chicago, for example; 506 people killed last year. I haven't seen, yet, the rates on the shootings but typically, the number of people shot in a year is four times the homicide rate; which means that an additional 2,000 people were shot and injured. And the kind of trauma that it has on a community is profound, whether you're involved in the - directly involved in the violence or not.

I think the other thing - the other mistake to make, in a place like Chicago - you know, typically, we talk about the gang violence in the city. But the truth of the matter is, is that the gangs have really fallen apart. They're nothing what they used to be. In fact, you find that the kids now talk about themselves belonging to cliques - one group on one block, and one group on another. And the sad part of it is, is that so many of these shootings are over what are such petty matters.

INSKEEP: So in effect, what you're saying is that the gangs are micro-local. I mean, they're fragments of what they used to be, but still quite violent from time to time.

KOTLOWITZ: Right, but not - it's not necessarily because of gang warfare. I mean, it used to be - 20 years ago, the gangs were very hierarchical. There was this really robust drug trade and so - so much of the violence was over turf. And that's not necessarily the case today.

INSKEEP: So if you look at Chicago going back up over the 500 annual homicide rate, do you see a situation where in this city as a whole - or in these neighborhoods, in these hot spots - progress has stalled, compared to the rest of the country?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think, you know, some perspective - 20 years ago, the homicide rate in Chicago was twice what it is today. So there's been, in some ways, terrific progress over the past couple of decades. Having said that, I think that 506 murders is untenable. And I will tell you - just spending time out in the streets, in these communities - the thing that sort of mystifies me, is the violence feels just as intense now as it did 20 years ago, despite the fact that it's been reduced in half.

INSKEEP: Why would that be?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think partly because in Chicago and - as in other cities, with the exception of New York - they've torn down the public housing high-rises. And so they were so isolated from the rest of the city, that so much of went on there kind of went unnoticed. And now, so much of that violence has spilled out into the neighborhoods. I think that's part of it. I think part of it, too, is because the gangs have fractured - that sometimes, the violence feels more random.

INSKEEP: So they've eliminated these pockets of extreme homicides, extreme crime, and yet there are still these places where it feels very oppressive.

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you got into a community like Englewood or West Garfield Park, on the city's West Side; and these are communities that, you know, are traumatized by the shootings, which happen on a reasonably regular basis.

INSKEEP: Carrie Johnson, you're nodding sadly.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Steve, I point out that Chicago is not the only major city with these kinds of pockets of inequality and problems. Experts I spoke with talked about Philadelphia as having a real problem with shootings, violent crime and homicides; and to a lesser extent, places like Detroit and Baltimore. Dallas even had some problems in 2012. There's certainly a list - despite the overall low homicide rates around the country - of cities that are not doing as well.

INSKEEP: So we have this long-term decline, Alex Kotlowitz. But we're looking at this one city - Chicago - where there was a sharp and troubling increase, at least in 2012. As someone who's in the city of Chicago, do you feel like you're - do you feel like that's just a spike that will go away, or that the trend is moving in a worse direction?

KOTLOWITZ: You know, it's hard to say, and I don't want to pretend to have prophetic powers. But I will tell you, whether it's 508 or 408 or 608, they're incredibly troubling when you begin to break it down, and look how concentrated they are. And those numbers are, in my mind, unacceptable and unimaginable. And they take enormously - an enormous toll on the spirit of both individuals, and on neighborhoods.

INSKEEP: Alex Kotlowitz's newest book is "Never a City So Real." Thanks for joining us.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: And we also spoke with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks to you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.