A trying first half of 2020 included spike in shootings and homicides in Chicago - Chicago Tribune
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A trying first half of 2020 included spike in shootings and homicides in Chicago

Tuesday Wilson reacts while hearing from a relative on the phone about the arrest of a suspect who may have fatally shot her son, 16-year-old Charles Riley, June 24, 2020, in Chicago. Charles and a 17-year-old friend were both fatally shot while visiting another friend in the 7900 block of South Luella Avenue on June 20.
Tuesday Wilson reacts while hearing from a relative on the phone about the arrest of a suspect who may have fatally shot her son, 16-year-old Charles Riley, June 24, 2020, in Chicago. Charles and a 17-year-old friend were both fatally shot while visiting another friend in the 7900 block of South Luella Avenue on June 20. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Days into grieving over the shooting death of her teenage son, Tuesday Wilson smiled while on her cellphone as she listened to some rare good news for a mother in her position.

“Thank you, thank you,” she told a relative before hanging up.

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She then turned to a Tribune reporter standing on her doorstep. “They have the killer,” she said in a relieved tone. “He took an innocent kid’s life. I don’t under understand...What was his motive? Right now, I just got a phone call that he’s been captured, and that’s a good thing.”

The shooting took place on a violent weekend when more than 110 people were shot, including at least 14 killed, contributing to a large spike in gun violence in the first half of this year in Chicago.

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Through Sunday, the city saw a jump of more than 25% in the number of homicides, reaching 295, which is 60 more than the same period a year ago, according to a review of crime statistics. Ninety-six of those occurred during a 28-day stretch that covered most of June, the statistics show.

Shooting incidents with at least one victim shot fatally or nonfatally jumped by almost 40% through Sunday, totaling 1,250.

Chicago violence through June 21

Unrelenting gun violence continued to rattle parts of the South and West sides despite stay-at-ag8亚集团官方网站home restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And as the weather has gotten warmer and some of those guidelines were loosening, George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota on Memorial Day sparked nationwide outrage, exacerbating an already fractured relationship between law enforcement and Black communities here, experts have said.

Many of those Chicago neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the violence in the first half of 2020, much of it fueled by frenzied weekends like the one that cost Wilson her 16-year-old son, Charles Riley.

Melissa McClure hugs her 16-year-old son, Matthew, as they attend an outdoor prayer service near their ag8亚集团官方网站home in the South Chicago neighborhood on June 26, 2020, in Chicago. Two of Matthew's friends, 16-year-old Charles Riley and 17-year-old Jasean Francis, were fatally shot outside the McClures' ag8亚集团官方网站home on June 20.
Melissa McClure hugs her 16-year-old son, Matthew, as they attend an outdoor prayer service near their ag8亚集团官方网站home in the South Chicago neighborhood on June 26, 2020, in Chicago. Two of Matthew's friends, 16-year-old Charles Riley and 17-year-old Jasean Francis, were fatally shot outside the McClures' ag8亚集团官方网站home on June 20. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Charles was shot and killed Saturday in the South Chicago community, along with his friend Jasean Francis, 17, after they had gone to a mall. Just an hour later, a 3-year-old boy was shot and killed on the West Side, and a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet just blocks from where the toddler was slain.

The West Side’s Harrison District, which led the city in homicides for all of 2019, is once again on pace to lead Chicago in killings. So far in 2020, Harrison is ranked first in homicides with 42, eight more than at the same point last year, official CPD statistics through Sunday show. Overall, shooting incidents in Harrison were up by 40% this year at 173, compared with 124 through the same point last year, according to the statistics.

The neighboring Austin District, where the 3-year-old, Mekhi James, was killed, saw a 56% jump in shooting incidents through Sunday with 86, a figure 31 more than last year, the statistics show. The Ogden District, which touches the West and Near Southwest sides with Little Village and North Lawndale, saw a jump as well.

In the Englewood District on the South Side, shootings were up by 68% in the first half of the year over the same period in 2019, from 73 to 123 through Sunday. Homicides increased slightly from 23 to 25, the statistics show.

Limits of the statistics

Crime experts generally caution against making year-to-year statistical comparisons, arguing that long-term trends give a better understanding of how the level of violence in a city has changed over time.

And 2020 is an outlier in terms of major news events affecting crime in major American cities, they have said.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist with University of Missouri at St. Louis, cited a new study he worked on showing how the overall number of homicides in five dozen U.S. cities during the COVID-19 pandemic went down in April compared with an average over the prior three years. There was also a homicide drop in May when some cities began lifting restrictions.

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Floyd’s death sparked protests in cities across the country, some of which gave way to looting and property damage, including in Chicago.

Rosenfeld said the fallout could likely contribute to the rise in violence through summer “over the three-year average.” He noted how homicide rates in some cities went up following other highly publicized deaths of other African Americans caused by white police officers, including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and when the video of Laquan McDonald’s fatal shooting by a Chicago police officer was released one year later.

“We’re currently in an unprecedented period of social unrest with respect to police brutality, and there’s every reason to believe we will again see a homicide rise coincide with the current period of unrest,” Rosenfeld said, adding the continued easing of coronavirus restrictions could also be a factor.

“Instead of the police withdrawing from the community, what we see, I think, is communities withdrawing even further from the police,” he said. “Not trusting the police to respond fairly or effectively, taking matters into their own hands when disputes arise or other problems emerge.”

So far in 2020, Chicago isn’t the only big city seeing spikes in violence. In New York, a city that took a big hit from the coronavirus and which also saw major civil unrest after the Floyd killing, homicides are up by 25% over last year, hitting 159 through June 14 compared with 127 in 2019.

Philadelphia has seen homicides jump by 20% through Sunday with 180, or 30 more than last year at this point. Shooting victims — people shot fatally or non-fatally — there were up 25% over the year-earlier period, according to Philadelphia police statistics.

Turbulence and leadership change

In addition to the twin challenges of COVID-19 and civil unrest after Floyd’s death, Chicago’s police force went through some of its most significant changes in the department’s history in the first half of the year.

In late January, then-interim Superintendent Charlie Beck unveiled a massive restructuring plan designed to better combat violence by moving hundreds of detectives, narcotics and gang officers under the control of deputy chiefs and commanders who oversee patrol functions. Beck also helped start a new office to carry out policing reforms required by a federal consent decree, the Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform.

Then in April, Mayor Lori Lightfoot hired former Dallas police Chief David Brown as Beck’s permanent replacement. Though it’s only two months into his tenure, Brown’s start has been a rocky one.

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown, center, observes the 1st District's Mass Transit Room operation on June 25, 2020. The department hopes it will quicken police response within the district and throughout the public transit system.
Chicago police Superintendent David Brown, center, observes the 1st District's Mass Transit Room operation on June 25, 2020. The department hopes it will quicken police response within the district and throughout the public transit system. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago police Superintendent David Brown speaks during an interview with the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 2020.
Chicago police Superintendent David Brown speaks during an interview with the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

With the weather warming up, protesters outraged over Floyd’s death took to the streets across the U.S., Chicago included. But in the last weekend of May, demonstrations downtown turned violent, and the city saw looting and other crimes unfold. The last weekend of May saw the height of the looting here. And more than 110 people were shot that weekend, including at least 15 killed on May 31 alone, the most for a single day in Chicago in years.

The department declined to make Brown available for an interview for this story. But last month, he told the Tribune that coming from Dallas, a city half the size of Chicago, he knew how difficult his job would be considering the level of violence here is “pretty in your face.”

“I understand Chicago has kind of been used to it for decades. But from an outsider’s perspective, it’s a lot to digest how much it happens, how often it happens,” he said in mid-May. “Not just the shootings, the murders are just unacceptably high.”

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While Brown has only been in charge of Chicago’s force for two months, he’s talked about the possibility of starting a permanent citywide unit devoted to stopping flare-ups in violence and other crime, a controversial idea that has come and gone in the department in recent years. This unit, Brown envisioned, could be more of a “significant community policing-oriented unit,” requiring its officers to work on community service projects during their shifts when they’re not out making arrests.

But on Monday, after the violent weekend that left more than 100 people shot, Brown stuck to familiar themes, blaming “gangs, guns and drugs” as well as short jail stays for defendants. He also said his officers are “human and they’re tired,” acknowledging they’ve worked multiple 12-hour days and through their days off in the last three weeks since the fallout over Floyd’s death.

Changes in outreach efforts

Also on the front lines of the anti-violence fight are street outreach workers, who work independent of the police to mediate gang conflicts and connect residents with social services.

The COVID-19 outbreak turned street outreach teams into public health workers, educating people congregating at street corners who weren’t obeying stay-at-ag8亚集团官方网站home orders, said Norman Livingston Kerr, who heads the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.

In an interview with the Tribune, Kerr acknowledged the difficult job of street outreach workers to stay ahead of all the shootings as violence has spiked in the last few months as their jobs have gone back to normal.

“With the city opening up, there’s more large gatherings. So there’s more late-night parties. There’s more things that are happening at these events with large numbers of people,” Kerr said. “Sometimes you can’t anticipate them. Sometimes these events are pop-up events where they just happen really quickly.”

Many of the workers have pushed to work almost around the clock to try to get control of the violence problem, he said.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Kerr said. “We have to be mindful of what they’re going through right now and making sure we’re supporting them as much as possible.”

A lost son

Tuesday Wilson, whose 16-year-old son was slain last weekend, described him as a typical kid. Charles went to Hyde Park Academy High School and liked to play video games and football, she said.

“He didn’t really have to fear for his safety, because wherever he went his parents, his dad made sure that he was in the car ...” Wilson said.

An alley entrance to a ag8亚集团官方网站home in the 7900 block of South Luella Avenue is shown June 24, 2020, in Chicago. On June 20, 16-year-old Charles Riley and 17-year-old Jasean Francis were fatally shot at the location while visiting a friend.
An alley entrance to a ag8亚集团官方网站home in the 7900 block of South Luella Avenue is shown June 24, 2020, in Chicago. On June 20, 16-year-old Charles Riley and 17-year-old Jasean Francis were fatally shot at the location while visiting a friend. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Standing outside the front vestibule of her apartment building in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, Wilson said she was still shaken and struggling to understand why Charles was gone and why Chicago’s ongoing scourge had ended his life. Charles was concerned about the shootings around him, she said, but it had not given way to worry.

“He wasn’t a violent child,” Wilson said. “Everybody is worried about their surroundings ... but why worry about it if you’re not in it?”

Chicago Tribune reporters Rosemary Sobol and Annie Sweeney contributed.

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