For most of the year, Chicago’s top cop has been ticked off about how shootings in Chicago get reported in the news.
The way Supt. Garry McCarthy sees it, local and national news organizations write about Chicago’s body count in a way that paints an unfair picture of violence in our city.
What’s missing from the reporting, McCarthy says, is “perspective.”
Before considering his beef against the practice of clustering the number of shooting victims by arbitrary time frames to justify “sensational” headlines, let’s make something perfectly clear.
There’s no debating that in Chicago 2012 was the Year of the Gun.
You can’t sugarcoat the numbers. By Friday, there were 500 murders — 447 victims were shot to death. That's the most since 2008 when 513 people were murdered in Chicago. Also by Friday there were 2,436 total shootings, 11 percent more than last year.
Those are big, bloody, unacceptable statistics and McCarthy doesn't deny it.
There should be a debate about whether Chicago and the Police Department get a fair shake in the media when it comes to how this year’s spike in violence is depicted in the news.
But until we actually do something about the chrome-plated, semi-automatic, extended-clip elephant in the room — our town is loaded with guns — we’re all in trouble.
To back up his point, McCarthy offered an alarming statistic: This year, police confiscated more than 7,300 illegal guns, including 300 assault rifles. Then he put those numbers in perspective.
During the first six months of the year, Chicago police confiscated nine times as many illegal guns as the New York Police Department and three guns for every one confiscated by Los Angeles police, he said.
“We're seizing guns. We locked up 7,000 more gang members” this year, said McCarthy, the former top cop in Newark, N.J. “Every year, we get more guns than any city in the country. When my friends ask me what’s different about Chicago, I tell them it’s the gangs and the guns. When you put those things together you’re gonna have a problem.”
And Chicago has a problem.
Since McCarthy arrived here from Newark he’s been preaching the importance of “reasonable gun restrictions” — laws that would require gun owners to report the loss, sale or transfer of guns, ban assault weapons and levy mandatory minimum sentences for possession of illegal guns.
It seems that after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that left 27 dead — 20 of them children — the federal government may finally start pushing for those kind of common-sense gun laws.
But the national conversation shouldn’t only focus on the unthinkable tragedy in a leafy Connecticut suburb that shook the nation.
It’s imperative that the gun debate, especially after this year, considers the Chicago perspective.
Because without additional gun restrictions, every violence-reduction strategy, every police effort to fight the good fight in violent Chicago neighborhoods will continue to be “like putting your mouth on a fire hose,” McCarthy says.
He has been thinking about that a lot lately. It even inspired him to take a closer look at the Second Amendment the gun lobbyists hold so dear.
“It says the right to bear arms. You know as well as I do that ‘arms’ means grenades, mortars, bazookas, Howitzers, cannons, rockets. But there’s not a debate on whether we should have those in our society. So, the question becomes where do we draw the line,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know why we need assault weapons for sporting events like hunting. To me, reasonable gun laws will help shut down the influx of firearms into our urban centers where we are having Sandy Hooks on a regular basis.
“In the month of November, we had 30 people murdered. So, we had a Sandy Hook last month and that goes on in cities across the country. And it will continue to go on without closing that back door that lets guns in our neighborhoods.”
But McCarthy can’t write the gun laws, improve education, end poverty, heal broken families or fix a lot of the things that people who know about these things say lead to violence.
What matters is whether there’s a way to slow the shooting in Chicago today. McCarthy, his department, and in some ways everyone who lives in Chicago gets judged by the statistics.
So, when a March spike in shootings and murders sparked a media frenzy that labeled Chicago as a city under fire, McCarthy became a lightning rod.
Over the summer, statistics started to show that his comprehensive strategy to combat violence — targeting the people most likely to be involved in shootings rather than just the neighborhoods victimized by violence — had started to work. But he didn’t see a change in the way shootings were being reported in the news.
“They write, ‘Six people shot in 15 minutes.’ Well, there were four people shot in one incident and two shot in another. OK, we had two shooting incidents. That’s not good. But, look, some people like to sensationalize and some people like to report facts,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can look at story after story and see how shootings are being sensationalized.”
A lot of people, especially people in the news business, might argue that McCarthy just doesn’t like the facts — and if six people were shot in 15 minutes there’s nothing sensational about putting that in a headline.
They might even say the top cop’s criticism of the news media is just an attempt to deflect attention from his own failure to stem shootings.
That’s a matter of perspective, too.
Over the last four years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reporting on violence in Chicago. I even was part of a team that wrote a few stories about a certain weekend in April 2008, when “40 people were shot and seven killed in 59 hours.”
Maybe that’s a sensational way to write about a very violent weekend, but it’s also true.
I asked McCarthy why certain news stories get him so worked up. He thinks the media hasn't reported enough on the Police Department's successes.
“Don’t get me wrong. We get enough criticism that we deserve because we didn’t get it done this year, and there’s no such thing as an acceptable murder number,” he said.
“But the bottom line is I’m not sure we’re getting the point of what’s going on because it’s been such a pile-on, if you will. It’s constantly the same story over and over. … I think people in Chicago don’t even hear it anymore because it has become like Charlie Brown’s teacher.”
I get what he’s saying. I’ve watched too many grieving mothers cry while interviewing them about their slain sons. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost the empathy I had as a younger reporter.
After a while, all these shooting victims become just another thing we add up to measure whether our city is a safer place than it was the year before.
Too many stories about violence in Chicago make it seem like the city has never been this violent, when in fact between 1990 and 1994, Chicago averaged 900 murders a year.
But when you look at month-to-month murder statistics compared to last year they show the number of murders in the each of the last three months was less than last year. Over all, this year's percentage increase in murders — once nearly 66 percent higher than last year — is now 16 percent. The percentage increase in shooting incidents, once 40 percent higher than last year, now stands at 11 percent more than 2011.
McCarthy says that’s the perspective that isn’t getting reported enough. He says it’s proof that his department’s violence reduction strategies — targeting known associates of shooters, tracking gang members, shutting down open-air drug markets and using data to track crime trends — has started to slow shootings, and that the effort is gaining momentum.
Maybe he’s right. Or maybe that’s his frustration talking. Maybe he’s tired of getting beaten up in the press for this year’s spike in violence and wants someone to write about a silver lining that foreshadows hope for 2013.
I asked McCarthy if he could find any good in all the negative press that frustrates him.
“In one sense, it’s being brought to light that we’re not going to walk away from violence or say if we can contain it in certain neighborhoods we’re OK,” he said.
“I think some of the negative attention can have a positive effect in the long term if more people on the North Side and in other neighborhoods where they don’t experience violence actually help us do something in those other neighborhoods to reduce violence — nonprofits going in and making a difference.”
There’s no doubt that all the headlines about violence here this year damaged Chicago’s image in a big way on the national stage.
But maybe that also means the rest of the nation will finally be able to see the Chicago perspective — a big city view — on why something needs to be done to keep our neighborhoods from getting flooded with all these guns.
Because "500" isn't just a number.