A half-dozen people were gunned down in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend as the summer got off to its unofficial start, adding to the 134 people who were killed as of May 26 in the city that became a focal point earlier this year as the nation debated ways to address gun violence.
Experts and activists say those numbers highlight a downward trend in the city’s gun fatalities this year, but also underscore the challenges officers face headed into what are usually some of the most violent months in urban centers across the country. More than two hundred people had been killed in the city by the same time a year ago.
Despite the lower number of homicides year over year, Chicago and gun violence have basically been synonymous over the last six months. The city saw a number of high-profile gun fatalities as the nation debated the prospect of new state and federal gun legislation in the wake of the school shooting deaths of 20 young children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.
In January, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old Chicagoan who performed at President Obama’s inauguration, was killed by a gunman who ran down an alley and fled in a white car, according to police.
In another incident, 6-month-old baby Jonylah Watkins died in March after being shot five times while she was sitting in her family’s parked minivan in the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Koman Willis, 33, turned himself in on May 25 in connection with the shooting. He has been charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bond.
In addition to the six people killed over the Memorial Day holiday, at least 17 more were injured, NBC Chicago reported. The weekend’s victims included an 18-year-old man who was killed in an alley and a 17-year-old man who died after having two bullets fired into his head.
Despite the headline-grabbing senselessness of the crimes, shootings in the city are actually down 28 percent compared to 2012 and 18 percent compared to 2011, said Chicago Police Department spokesman Adam Collins.
But the summer will bring new challenges as people gather outdoors in parks and other public spaces, said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.
“Gun violence or violent crime increases during the summer months, and some of the reasons include that you just have more people with unstructured time,” Ander said. “When you have more people like you do in the summer months outdoors in public places, you just have a lot more potential for violent crime to happen.”
“The city could actually reach the lowest number of homicides since the 1960s, but the biggest tests will be June, July, and August,” said Tio Hardiman, director of community anti-violence group CeaseFire Illinois.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed to crack down on trouble areas in the aftermath of 2012’s Memorial Day violence, when eleven people were killed and more than 40 were hurt over a four-day period.
“Whether you are a problem business, a violent street corner, or a known drug market, we will go after you,” Emanuel said at the time, according to the Associated Press.
Police have taken a renewed approach to suppressing gun violence since then, placing more cops on patrol in impact zones, Chicago Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy said in an interview with NBC Chicago at the beginning of May. The city saw a 42 percent drop in homicides between January and the end of April this year, officials said.
“We’re going to have good days, we’re going to have bad days, but what’s the overall trend line?” McCarthy said. “In the first four months of this year, we’re in a position that we haven’t been in since the mid-Sixties, as far as the murder rate goes.”
“We are seeing real progress with a significant drop in murders, shootings and overall crime throughout Chicago,” Collins said in an email. “This is progress, not a victory, and it’s a result of our comprehensive policing strategy that includes our gang violence reduction initiative, targeted narcotics initiatives, a return to community policing and a close partnership between CPD and the community.”
Hardiman said that his group, which works with at-risk 16-to-25 year olds to keep them out of conflicts, plans to increase its presence on the streets over the summer months. There are encouraging signs, he said, that the city may see a continued decline in gun deaths even as the weather heats up.
“We usually have a spike during the months of March and April, and we didn’t have those spikes this year,” Hardiman said. “We’re going to have some good days and some bad days.”
But a comparison of crime statistics year-over-year can be misleading, Ander said. A decline in crime rates can rarely be traced back to a single cause, she said, and other factors like a relatively chilly spring may also have contributed to the city’s decrease in gun violence so far this year.
So a decline in gun-related violence this summer would be a positive sign, Ander said, that preventive efforts are taking hold.
“I think it’s too soon to tell or say anything definitive about what’s happening,” Ander said. “It’s certainly encouraging that we’re seeing numbers decrease, and I think a lot of the strategies that the police department are employing do seem like the right things to do.”