Less than two years later, Lightfoot’s touted deputy mayor is gone, Lightfoot is under political siege from all sides and still people keep dying on city streets. How did this happen again? And why does the city’s gun violence seem to go unabated?
“It’s political; it’s institutional; it’s the Chicago way,” laments Lance Williams, a former anti-violence outreach worker on the South Side and now a professor at Northeastern Illinois University. He cites a litany of reasons why Chicago has been unable to solve its violence problem: hyper-segregated neighborhoods, dysfunctional local schools, traumatized families, endemic urban poverty, disinvestment, blame-game politics, a city awash in handguns and, perhaps most of all, human desperation.
But the biggest impediment, Williams says, is a lack of will and commitment to end violence. “We’re spending what, $16 million, on anti-violence? This is a multibillion-dollar problem that has been with us for generations.”
There’s little doubt that Lightfoot’s initial, aggressive efforts to attack Chicago’s violence were foiled by the pandemic. Chicago was not alone in seeing murders dramatically increase in 2020. With millions tossed out of work, major cities like New York and Philadelphia also saw a surge in killings in 2020. Most experts agree that the pandemic and civil unrest contributed to these homicide spikes.
Inside Chicago’s homicide numbers
In three years, Chicago’s homicides dropped from 769 in 2016 to 502 in 2019. Then 2020 happened, and 780 people were murdered in Chicago. That’s a 55 percent increase from 2019. While homicides were up nationwide, Chicago outpaced other large cities.
Chicago’s daily homicides (2020)
Change in homiceds (2020 vs. 2019)
Sources: Chicago Police Department, Crain’s reporting
Homicides in Chicago climbed from 502 in 2019 to 780 last year. In New York City, the number in 2020 was 454, compared with 300 in 2019. In Los Angeles, there were 347 murders, up from 254 in 2019. This is not just Chicago’s problem, but Chicago leads the way.
“Chicago has always had a violence epidemic, by sheer volume” says Susan Lee, Lightfoot’s former deputy mayor for public safety, who left that post in October, less than 16 months after being appointed. “But the pandemic, coupled with the loss of legitimacy of government in the post-George Floyd era, really brought forth a perfect storm, in terms of violence in the communities that were already suffering.”