Tahitah Myles attends Ronnie Chamber's funeral in Chicago last year. He was the father of her son and a victim of gun violence.

Story highlights

Despite "murder capital" headlines, most Chicago areas see few homicides

A handful of areas on the South and West sides are to blame, and it's been like that for years

One sociologist calls the disparity a "crime gap," and he fears it's only getting worse

CNN  — 

If you live in 60611, the swank Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville where Oprah Winfrey and actor Vince Vaughn have owned condos, you’d expect your neighborhood to be safe. The same holds true for 60654, where NBA star Dwayne Wade has owned a townhouse.

Together, these coveted zip codes had one murder in 2013, and it didn’t even involve a resident. A Wisconsin couple died in an apparent murder-suicide at a downtown hotel.

But a few miles to the west or south, it’s a different story.

Neighborhoods like Austin and Englewood – poorer, less educated, predominantly African-American and infested with gangs – have murder rates 10 times higher than other Chicago areas.

Despite recent headlines calling Chicago the “murder capital of the U.S.,” homicides are rare in most of the city’s neighborhoods. Instead, it’s a small handful of areas that are to blame, and they’ve struggled for decades.

It’s what one sociologist calls the “crime gap” – and like the income gap and other markers of disparity in urban America, he worries it’s only getting wider.

Map: Chicago's neighborhoods

Making matters worse, homicides in these neighborhoods are affecting children’s test scores, some studies show – at the same time the school system is struggling to fund enough counselors, social workers and psychologists who could help students cope with the violence.

Still, police, school leaders and others are trying new approaches that seem to be making inroads – including one pilot program that has officers visiting paroled gang members at their homes.

“The whole ‘murder city’ or the characterization that Chicago is such a dangerous city is just not accurate,” said Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos. He grew up in Chicago, and he’s been fighting this false impression for years. When he travels overseas, people ask him where he grew up. When he tells them, they very often say “Al Capone” and imitate the violent mobster shooting a Tommy gun.

“Thank God for Michael Jordan,” Papachristos said. “At least now people know someone else from my city.”

The “murder capital” headline came last fall after the FBI released its 2012 crime statistics and Chicago had more homicides than any other U.S. city with 503 – even more than New York, which has three times the population.

But taking population into account, Chicago had a murder rate of 18.7 for every 100,000 people, lower than Detroit, New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Newark, Oakland, Cleveland – even Flint, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama.

‘No flash in the pan’

And 2012 was an especially bloody year for Chicago. The previous year saw 435 murders, and 2013 saw 415. President Obama called attention to the city’s violence in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he paid tribute to Hadiya Pendleton – a Chicago honor student gunned down only days after performing at his second inauguration in Washington.

Honor student Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was shot and killed in a park after school in January 2013.

Chicago’s violent reputation is “way overblown,” said the city’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy.

Last year, the number of homicides in Chicago fell 18% to a level not seen since 1965. McCarthy, who was brought in by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, credits in part a new policing strategy that puts more officers on regular beats.

“For six consecutive quarters now we’ve seen a murder rate reduction,” McCarthy told CNN. “We still have a long way to go, sure, but six consecutive quarters show this is no flash in the pan.”

Violent crime has been down across the country, in some cases reaching its lowest point in decades – a phenomenon so remarkable some sociologists call it “the Great American Crime Decline.”

Violence has declined in Chicago too, “impressively so,” said Papachristos. But according to his analysis of 48 years of crime data, the violence has “stubbornly” hung around certain neighborhoods for decades, where crime rates are “unexpectedly high.”

“I think of it as ‘the crime gap,’ ” said Papachristos, who worries such inequalities are getting bigger in the U.S. When it comes to violent crime in Chicago, he said, there “seems to be a kind of durable inequality.”

“Crime remains persistent in particular communities, especially in socially and economically disadvantaged parts or the city,” Papachristos said. And the consequences of this constant violence lingers.

The highest rates of homicides and violence are concentrated in the city’s South and West sides. Englewood, Austin, North Lawndale, Woodlawn, Pilsen/Little Village, and West and East Garfield Park are among the troubled areas.

Just how different are the rates of homicide and violence? Papachristos’ analysis found the homicide rate between 2000-10 was 3.1 per 100,000 residents in Chicago’s Northwest side and 5 per 100,000 in Irving Park. But for residents of Englewood, it was 58 per 100,000, and 64 per 100,000 in West Garfield Park.

And that disparity has been around since 1965, the first year police records were reliably collected, Papachristos said.

A large part of the problem stems from Chicago’s gang warfare. Superintendent McCarthy said his city has “one of the worst gang violence problems in the country.” Papachristos’ analysis of homicides noted that most involve gang members.

Unlike in Capone’s day, gangs don’t all work under a top-down model where a single leader has control over who’s killed. Gangs now operate more like a franchise, Papachristos said. The model changed after the feds arrested a number of gang kingpins in the 1990s. As a result, there is more inner gang fighting in addition to fights between rival gangs.

The nature of the continuing violence meant police had to figure out a new strategy. When McCarthy took over the department in 2011, he felt it lacked a “comprehensive gang violence reduction strategy.”

McCarthy said he restructured the department to rely on “performance-based policing rather than on politics.” He felt with “the right resources in the right hands” and by holding officers accountable for crime on the patch they patrol, things would change – and they have.

“The mayor gave me an obvious charge,” McCarthy said. “But there is no secret to this and there is no one silver bullet to fix it. It’s a lot of hard work.”

Now, instead of big bureaucratic citywide task forces tackling gang problems, he in part put more officers on beats – “it’s the same officers in the same cars in the same neighborhoods” – so police can develop a real relationship with the people they are trying to protect. A recent Chicago Tribune analysis of city data found that despite the renewed hiring push for beat cops, the department has had a hard time keeping up with retirements – although police responded to the report by saying the department has “virtually no vacancies” and that there are more than 200 additional officers now compared to December 2011.

The new policing is also about a philosophy change.

“Our enforcement now is not just locking everyone up,” McCarthy said, “it is about getting the right intelligence from a beat officer and figuring out how we prevent the next shooting.”

Police are also encouraging community members to speak out and are working with schools to monitor feuds and stop fights before they get out of control. The police even work directly with key gang leaders.

One gang member at a time

One new initiative makes a heart-to-heart with police a mandatory part of parole for gang members. An officer will go to the gang member’s home and talk to him, preferably with family watching. The officer starts with a warning, McCarthy said: “If you continue doing what you are doing, we will not just take you out, we will take out your entire group.”

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says the city's gun violence is bad but getting better.

The officer will remind the gang member about the enhanced penalties for crimes committed by people with gang affiliations. In one case, McCarthy said, his district commander had this chat with a gang member while the parolee held his 18-month-old son on his lap. As the gang member looked at his son, it seemed to the commander that his message was getting through.

Next, a community member calls on the gang member. Often the civilian will be the parent of a murdered child who lives in the gang member’s neighborhood. They talk about the consequences of violence.

Police then offer social services like job contacts, health programs, housing and drug treatment.

“We make it completely personal to that one individual, and by bringing it to their residence, the goal is to get the people who are in their lives and can influence their actions to encourage them to change,” McCarthy said. “We get our hooks into them early and remind them, ‘If you continue doing what you are doing, you will end up dead.’ ”

This started as a pilot program about six months ago in the Austin neighborhood. So far, police have conducted about 60 interventions. Some gang members slam the door on the officers, but others listen. About 17 so far have accepted social services. The results are still preliminary, but as far as police know, no gang member contacted through the program has been involved in a felony since. And overall, violent crime is down in traditionally troubled neighborhoods. Youth violence in 2013 was down some 40%.

The program is not without its critics, some of whom refer to the program as “hug-a-thug.” But McCarthy said the program has been successful enough that police are even wading into ongoing gang conflicts. After a 14-year-old was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting, officers went to the homes of gang leaders in the Woodlawn neighborhood and warned them against continuing the fight. In each meeting, an officer was joined by a community resources person who offered social services.

The cash-strapped school district is also getting involved. The nation’s third-largest school district had a bad reputation for its high expulsion rate, which disproportionately involved students in the communities represented in the toughest neighborhoods. A federal civil rights report showed that for the 2009-10 school year, African-Americans made up 45% of district enrollment, but accounted for 76% of all students suspended. The U.S. Department of Education encouraged an alternative to zero tolerance.

Since 2012 district leaders have pushed to abandon zero-tolerance programs, which had resulted in the high rate of suspensions. The 2013-14 school year saw a 36% drop in suspensions districtwide. The district now has a different code of conduct that uses a three-part approach to try to keep kids in school. It involves prevention, intervention and removing the student from the problem.

“We start by making sure there is a positive climate and a culture of trust at the school with everyone from the principals to the janitors to the teachers and security guards,” said Aarti Dhupelia, the Chicago Public Schools chief officer of college and career success.

The district instituted peer juries, peer mediation, talking circles and other restorative justice programs in neighborhoods with higher violent crime rates. The idea behind restorative justice is that when people violate a rule, they violate the relationship they have with other people in their community. Under this model, justice is then best served when the two sides of a conflict come together and talk about what has happened, assess who has been hurt, and figure out how the relationship can be repaired.

“Keeping kids connected to schools in their community lowers the risk they may present to the community,” said Dhupelia.

Working with local nonprofits, schools in these tougher neighborhoods also have started programs to teach social and emotional skills such as collaboration, self-control and self-management.

There are, however, limitations. The district has an extremely tight budget. Its staff of counselors, social workers and psychologists is short thousands of people, according to an analysis by the Chicago Teachers Union. For instance, at the end of the 2011 school year, the district had just 370 social workers. Using the ratio of one social worker with a master’s degree for every 400 students – the guidelines recommended by the School Social Work Association of America – the district would need a thousand more social workers to help these schools, plus an additional 250 for schools on probation, according to the CTU.

The district’s counselors have a case load that is five times recommended standards, and the district would need to double the number of psychologists it has, the CTU analysis found.

Asked if the school district felt more counselors, social workers and psychologists were needed, Chicago Public Schools spokeman Joel Hood noted that the district had implemented a “student-based budgeting model” this school year that gives principals more discretion to hire counselors if needed.

“Principals have unprecedented control over how to spend education dollars, allowing them to create their own budgets and staffing plans in a way they believe will best meet the academic and social-emotional needs of their students,” Hood said.

He said the district “believes the social-emotional development of students is directly linked to their academic achievement. Creating a positive learning climate for students is the work of the whole school, and the district invests in professional development to help school leaders, teachers and staff give students the support system they need to succeed in the classroom and in life.”

The 1,500-foot effect

The impact of violence in the schools may be especially hard on young children who live within 1,500 feet of a homicide, one study has found.

Family and friends watch police investigate the scene where a 14-year-old boy was shot and killed in September.

Papachristos and NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey tested kids in Head Start programs in Chicago’s tough neighborhoods and found that verbal and impulse control scores were lower for children if a homicide had occurred within a 1,500-foot radius during the past week.

Tests of older students showed similar results.

Sharkey thought the results for the younger kids were particularly telling since they “are not directly involved in the feuds and the battles that take place in Chicago neighborhoods, and yet they were affected,” Sharkey said. “This evidence suggests violence is felt by the child’s parents, and the child can sense the changes in the behavior of their parents and their siblings.”

The children also may be reacting to their surroundings: The heavy police presence, the constant sirens at night and the regular sound of gunshots create a high-stress environment.

“We don’t quite know what is driving this effect,” said Sharkey, “but this means for children in these violent neighborhoods where they sometimes have one homicide a month at least, kids are starting school with a heavy burden and an inability to focus in school, and that has the potential to have long-term consequences.”

The estimate of children in Chicago with PTSD is “absurd, it is remarkably high,” he said. “We need policies and programs that reduce the consequences for the kids who have done nothing wrong … and reduce the burden that they feel.”

Chicago’s social services also have gotten involved in efforts aimed at reducing violence, said Evelyn Diaz, the commissioner of family and support services.

Her department offers three major programs. B.A.M., which stands for Becoming a Man, is a dropout and violence prevention program for at-risk male students in grades 7-12. It offers programs on impulse control and emotional self-regulation during and after school aimed at reducing violent and anti-social behavior. A University of Chicago study found the program reduced violent crime arrests for participants by 44% and reduced weapons crime and vandalism by 36% compared to other at-risk young men.

MATCH Education is a tutoring program that helps these same kids with math. Results of a pilot program at one school found that misconduct, course failures and absenteeism went down significantly.

Diaz’s office also oversees a summer jobs program in which students have access to adult mentors 24/7. A study found that young people who participated in that program were half as likely to be arrested for violent crime. This summer it will employ around 20,000 kids, most from neighborhoods with high crime and high unemployment.

The city has tripled its funding for these three programs since they started last year, she said. The business community has also donated millions more toward these efforts. Diaz said she believes the city’s holistic approach to ending violence will work.

“We are going for impressive gains with these programs because there are very high stakes involved; it’s kids’ lives we are talking about,” Diaz said. “We all feel that in a personal way, and we will stop at nothing to change that.”