Chicago, like many cities across the country today, is a shadow of its former self. Nearly two weeks into a statewide stay-at-home order designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, most aspects of everyday life have come to a screeching halt. The city’s popular Lakefront is closed, as are schools, dine-in restaurants, and bars. Once densely packed downtown streets, bustling tourist attractions, and the city’s commuter “L” trains are now relatively empty.
The city will remain this way for at least another month, as Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker recently extended the state’s stay-at-home order through the end of April. Illinois has nearly 9,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, a large portion of which are in Chicago. As the public waits to learn whether the governor’s orders will stem the spread of the virus, there’s also acute interest in whether the new rules will alleviate another public health crisis: gun violence.
Street outreach workers are doubling as messengers on avoiding infection.
On April 1, the Chicago Police Department announced that the city experienced a 10 percent decrease in overall crime in March, compared to the same month last year. The number of total shootings, meanwhile, increased slightly. But the second half of March saw a decline in shootings when compared to the same period in 2019.
In the weeks and months ahead, will the trend continue?
“I think the short answer is that no one knows because we haven’t really been through this before,” said Max Kapustin, a research director with the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “Despite this feeling like [coronavirus has] been going on for years… it hasn’t been that much time.”
Kapustin said a slight drop in what he calls “outdoor crimes” — like shootings and robberies — is to be expected: The state’s lockdown order will likely keep would-be victims and perpetrators inside. But he warned that it’s too early to tell whether the outbreak will prove a turning point for gun violence in Chicago.
“All of those things, even if they’re temporarily depressed because of COVID-19, will likely still be an issue after,” he said.
Andrew Papachristos, a researcher at Northwestern University who focuses on gun violence prevention, agreed.
“The COVID-19 is not a cure for Chicago violence,” he said.
Papachristos says that while useful, week-to-week or year-to-year comparisons of crime trends risk being overly simplistic and need to be placed in context. “Crime and violence never goes up or down in a straight line,” he said. “There are all sorts of short-term impacts.”
The city’s recent crime statistics are an example. Despite a nearly 20 percent reduction in shootings during the week of March 16 through March 22, the raw numbers offer a more sobering perspective: There were just six fewer shooting incidents compared to the same period in 2019. The following week, shootings increased by more than a dozen incidents.
“What is missing is the fact that people are still suffering,” Papachristos said. “The danger is to take your eye off the other things… the drivers for violence are still there.”
Most of the city’s gun violence happens in a handful of neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. These areas have experienced a systemic lack of investment in housing, jobs, and education for decades, leading to higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and income disparities.
“It’s important to think of gun violence as a symptom of structural violence,” said David Stovall, a professor of African-American Studies and Criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If you have a place that’s hyper-surveilled, a place that has high stress levels, a place that does not have access to quality education, living-wage employment, healthy food options, [or] medical care — then that place is ripe for violence, but not because of particular individuals, but because the structure has disallowed for folks to actually improve their conditions.”
Stovall said he expects issues like poverty and unemployment to be exacerbated by the stay-at-home order and coronavirus outbreak.
Illinois is already seeing what it calls an “unprecedented” rise in claims for unemployment benefits. The state’s Department of Employment Security announced last week that it’s call center was receiving “hundreds of calls per minute, per day.”
“The economic picture on the South and West Sides was already not great, it’s hard to imagine how this kind of shock on that [system] will make things better,” Kapustin said.
The residents of these communities may also be more vulnerable to contracting the virus, researchers say, due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions, like asthma. Black people are already overrepresented in the state’s confirmed coronavirus caseload, making up 30 percent of known cases. Black people comprise just 15 percent of the state’s population.
The recent decline in shootings and homicides in the last few weeks of March compared to 2019 — however modest — comes after a rocky first two months of the year, in which officials say there was a notable increase in gun violence compared to the same time last year.
But researchers and street outreach workers say context is important. In Spring 2019, Chicago was emerging from a historically cold winter that saw several days with below-zero temperatures. In comparison, the weather this year has been much milder.
“Last year around this time, we were ending the polar vortex, people were in their house,” said Terrance Henderson, a street outreach manager with Chicago CRED, a violence prevention and workforce development organization. He oversees a group of violence interrupters who operate between the Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods on the South Side.
“Regardless of the polar vortex or the pandemic, we don’t want that to be the main cause of gun violence reduction,” he said. “That’s not a win for outreach.”
Henderson is one of nearly 200 gun violence prevention workers in the city who are considered “essential” under the state’s stay-at-home order, meaning they are allowed to continue their work. His team now has another task, as well — informing residents about coronavirus and how they can stay safe during the outbreak.
Henderson predicts that gun violence in the city will return to “normal” as the weather becomes consistently warmer. In the meantime, he said, people with ongoing conflicts are likely sitting back and waiting to make their move.
“We really want to be proactive and get ahead of that curve,” he said.