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September 28, 2016

"How Did Chicago Get So Violent? Did the effort to eradicate the city’s gangs in the 1990s inadvertently lead to its bloody present?"

The question in the title of this post are the headline of this really interesting new Slate article.  I recommend the article in full, and this extended excerpt highlights the key ideas of the piece:

The first wave of convictions stemming from Operation Headache came in March 1996.  But the biggest, most symbolically meaningful blow to the Gangster Disciples was delivered in May 1997, when Hoover was convicted of 42 counts of conspiracy to distribute drugs, received a sentence of six life terms, and was transferred to a supermax prison in Colorado, where his cell was located several stories underground and his ability to communicate with the remnants of his gang were severely constrained.  Soon, the GDs in Chicago had been all but neutralized, and the authorities shifted their attention to decapitating the city’s other major drug organizations, the Black Disciples and the Vice Lords.

Over the course of a roughly 10-year stretch starting in the mid-1990s, leaders from the GDs, the Vice Lords, the Black Disciples, and to a lesser extent, the Latin Kings were successfully prosecuted and taken off the street.  The top-down assault appeared to work as Safer and his colleagues had hoped: violent crime in Chicago began to decline, with the city’s murder total dropping from a high of 934 in 1993 to 599 10 years later.

For a while, it looked like the trend might continue moving in a positive direction, but after dipping below 500 in 2004, the number of murders in Chicago per year leveled off and began hovering in the 400s.  Over the past several years, however, the situation started getting worse; today, Chicago is once again synonymous with out-of-control gun violence, a city that regularly makes national news for the perilous existence that some of its poorest residents must endure.  Over the weekend of Sept. 12, the city passed 3,000 shootings and 500 murders since the beginning of the year, surpassing in just nine months the total numbers from 2015. As of this writing, the 2016 tally is up to 3,131 shootings and 530 homicides; a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice showed that Chicago, by itself, is responsible for half of the 13 percent increase in homicides that the country as a whole is projected to experience this year.

According to the Chicago Police Department, 85 percent of the city’s gun murders in 2015 can be attributed to gang violence — a statistic that suggests a return to the bad old days while obscuring how profoundly the nature of Chicago’s gang problem has changed in the intervening years.  While experts say the Latin Kings, a Hispanic gang, continue to run a large and rigidly organized drug-selling operation on Chicago’s West Side, the majority of Chicago residents who call themselves gang members are members of a different type of group. Rather than sophisticated drug-selling organizations, most of the city’s gangs are smaller, younger, less formally structured cliques that typically lay claim to no more than the city block or two where they live.  The violence stems not from rivalries between competing enterprises so much as feuds that flare up with acts of disrespect and become entrenched in a cycle of murderous retaliation.

Many close observers of Chicago’s violence believe that, as well-intentioned as it was, the systematic dismantling of gangs like the Disciples led directly to the violence that is devastating the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods in 2016.  Taking out the individuals who ran the city’s drug trade, the theory goes, caused a fracturing of the city’s criminal underworld and produced a vast constellation of new entities that are no less violent, and possibly even more menacing, than their vanquished predecessors.

“Every time they hit these large street gangs, they’d focus on the leadership,” said Lance Williams, an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and the co-author of a book about the rise and fall of the Black P Stone Nation, a gang that was eradicated in the 1980s.  “It’s like cutting the head off a snake — you leave the body in disarray and everyone begins to scramble for control over these small little areas. And that’s where you get a lot of the violence, because the order is no longer there.”  Williams added: “When you lose the leadership, it turns into chaos… What we’re dealing with now is basically the fallout of gang disorganization.”

The proliferation of small gangs has created a complicated and ever-changing patchwork of new alliances and rivalries, and instilled in many young people — predominantly poor, black men — a sense that they are vulnerable at all times to lethal attacks by members of opposing factions.

September 28, 2016 at 08:38 AM | Permalink


This is clap-trap.

What's going on in Chicago--lenient policies, a withdrawal of federal gun prosecution resources and de-policing.

Talking about something that happened 20 years ago---you kidding? Perhaps, just perhaps, the fragmented gang scene needs stronger policing, and now that's gone.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 28, 2016 9:39:35 AM

Agreed with Federalist here, if there were going to be a spike due to clearing out drug gangs I would have expected that it would have occurred much closer to that clearing as new gangs started vying over territory. I seriously doubt it would take a decade for new gang territories to start butting up against each other.

And keep in mind with 3000+ shootings that better medical care is likely responsible for the murder rate being as low as it is. (Actually, that would probably be easy to get a rough estimate on how much of a factor medical services play, compare survival rates over time, medical care seems like it would have disproportionate impact on survival as compared with other factors - I would expect factors like wound severity to either be fairly stable year to year or randomly distributed across all years).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 28, 2016 11:04:44 AM

Your point about medical care, Soronel, is I think a very important and underappreciated one that likely contributes in various ways to (1) a full accounting of why murder rates fell so sharply from 1991 to 2014, and (2) to why murder rates may still vary a good deal based on the location of shooting (e.g., urban, suburban, rural).

To his credit, Supremecy Claus often brought up this point as an explanation for the reduction in murders in modern times, and I continue to wonder whether/how folks have studied closer the relationships between access to medical care and homicides/shootings.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 28, 2016 11:15:57 AM

I question that medical care improved that much in the last few decades for that to be as significant as suggested here in this context. If it is, I would simply focus on actual shootings and violent assaults, not HOMICIDES alone. Since "violent crime" is cited, figure that is factored in here though.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 28, 2016 12:57:13 PM

But, if I'm wrong, it underlines how addressing prison rates etc. alone isn't important when judging how much let's say Obama has helped in the area of criminal justice. If murder rate goes down simply by having better health care, that is.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 28, 2016 12:59:05 PM


I would agree with you about medical care if we were strictly talking about what can be done if a live patient is delivered to competent emergency staff. As far as that goes I do doubt that much has changed over the last 20 years. But in this context medical services includes many other items - time from wounding to delivery, what can be done on-site and while on-route etc. And in those terms it would not surprise me at all if things have changed over that time period.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 28, 2016 1:24:16 PM

I am hearing news reports that seven cities (and not all of them the largest cities) account for approximately half of the increase in violent crimes in 2015. I would be interested in seeing somebody doing a deeper dive into what, if anything, those cities have in common that makes them stand out from the rest of the country.

Posted by: tmm | Sep 28, 2016 1:35:57 PM

I myself prefer that the national guard just go to. Chicago and shoot the gangs.

Might seem harsh, but I wouldnt play around and have these bastards cost us prosecution, then prison costs. Mow them down. Things will turn around Immediately.

They are out of control and it is a solution. Then go to Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, Philly, Dallas and clean house.

I didnt say its popular, but our country has a paper asshole these days.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 28, 2016 4:58:55 PM

"from wounding to delivery, what can be done on-site and while on-route etc."

Think if anything it's possible places like Chicago might be BETTER than other areas here regarding trauma medicine, in part based on developing skills to deal with the issue. Likewise, a city like Chicago could have hospitals and emergency rooms more experienced in dealing this then some more isolated area with violent crime. And, again, it would have had to be particularly worse to factor in here.

I don't know enough to really say, but find it suspicious.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 4, 2016 10:16:36 AM

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