Why is Chicago getting so much attention for its high crime numbers? One reason is its sheer size, Max Kapustin of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, tells The Atlantic. “We know that there are a number of cities mostly smaller than Chicago—cities like Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, Detroit—that have much, much higher homicide rates. They don’t get nearly as much press attention only because they happen to be considerably smaller than Chicago,” he says. Still, why are homicides up so much in Chicago? Was it a decline in the city’s vast educational system? Available data shows no sharp drop-off in per-pupil spending. High school graduation rates rose by 10 percent over the same period. The Rahm Emanuel administration’s controversial decision to close half the city’s mental-health clinics occurred in 2011, far too early to have caused 2016’s spike.
The data on one obvious possible cause—a sudden shift in policing tactics—offers little clarity. Street stops had been in steady decline since early 2014, when they peaked at 80,000 per month. By October 2015, they reached 60,000 per month and then plummeted sharply to 10,000 stops by December 2015. At first glance, that would seem to correlate with the sudden surge of crime in 2016. The full picture isn’t clear. Chicago experienced a confluence of events in late 2015 that could also have played a role. The police released a video of the Laquan McDonald, prompting protests throughout the city and heightened national scrutiny. Thirteen days later, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Chicago’s police practices. The city agreed to complete an additional report after every street stop on January 1, the same day a state law came into effect that added further restrictions. “It’s not a clear-cut story of the police no longer policing,” says Kapustin.