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Chicago's mayor said violent crime is on a 'downward trajectory.' That's not the whole story.

Another violent Fourth of July weekend has the city grappling with what to do about gun violence.
Police investigate a crime scene where three people were shot at the Wentworth Gardens housing complex in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood June 23, 2021. Shootings in the last 12 months are at a level not seen since 2016, according to Chicago Police Department data.Scott Olson / Getty Images

CHICAGO — When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a press conference last month that the city was seeing a downward trend in violent crime, she was technically right.

Aggravated batteries, robberies and sexual assaults had declined. But Lightfoot’s critics, including many conservatives, were quick to point out that her claims brushed past numbers that were not as rosy — such as jumps in shootings and homicides.

Homicides so far this year have risen 33 percent compared to the same time period in 2019.

It’s a topic that was brought into the national spotlight over a particularly violent Fourth of July holiday weekend, in which the city reported 100 people were shot, 18 of whom died.

Nationwide, nearly 200 people were killed.

An NBC News analysis of Chicago Police Department data going back 20 years shows that overall, violent crime continued its slow decline during the pandemic. When all categories of violent crime are added together, the total declined by 46 percent over 20 years, and held steady between the first half of both 2019 and 2021.

But some of the crime categories that most worry the public have gone up. In addition to homicides, shootings have risen by 59 percent since the first half of 2019, the most recent comparable period since the pandemic began. And carjackings have nearly tripled.

Experts say those increases are because the once-in-a-generation pandemic has exacerbated economic and social problems that create the conditions for crime.

“We’ve got to recognize that the year and a half that we’ve gone through is unprecedented,” said David Olsen, a co-director for the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University Chicago.

Olsen said he was concerned about the pressure on elected officials to find a solution fast while ignoring crime’s underlying causes.

“The places where we're seeing the highest rates of homicide and shootings are the same communities that we have over the last 30 or 40 years – primarily the communities that are most economically disadvantaged and most racially segregated,” Olsen said.

Previous crime spikes prompted officials to create specialized units or programs meant to curb violence. In the 1980s, the Chicago Police Department launched a special operations section, which would eventually be disbanded after some members were charged with robbery and kidnapping. And more recently, the violence reduction iInitiative under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent thousands of police officers into crime-plagued areas. Those officers were later found by WBEZ to be mostly writing parking tickets on overtime.

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown launched two specialized units in 2020 that he says is helping curb violence. He also launched a carjacking task force.

The most recent spike in gun violence was in 2016, when 788 homicides were recorded.

The 335 homicides in the first half of this year equal the homicide count of the first half of 2016. Sexual assaults were down from recent highs in 2017, with more than 700 reported so far in 2021.

City data released in May and updated as of this week show that so far this year, 325 people 19 years or younger were shot, 46 of them fatally.

Aggravated batteries, in which someone is harmed violently, sometimes with a weapon, are down in Chicago, but the number of shootings, a subset of batteries, are up 60 percent over 2019’s count for the first half of the year. Other types of batteries such as those with weapons other than guns are down.

That is also the case with robberies, which decreased as the pandemic lockdowns forced people indoors and off the streets. But carjackings, which fall under robberies, skyrocketed, garnering national headlines as many of those crimes were carried out by teenagers.

Chicagoans are used to officials spinning numbers and choosing the rosiest statistics, critics say, but it’s harder to minimize the victims of gun violence.

During his press conference last week ahead of the holiday weekend, Brown said crime was down, and cited a number of year-over-year statistics.

But he was comparing current crime numbers to those in June 2020, which were at historical highs in the wake of the unrest that followed George Floyd’s killing. Like Chicago, several other cities across the U.S. experienced increased gun violence during that time.

The following day, Brown faced scrutiny from City Council members who called an emergency meeting to demand clarity on what his plan was to curb violence for the July 4 holiday weekend. The meeting, decried by Lightfoot as “political shenanigans,” lasted six hours. While aldermen grilled Brown, at least two people were shot, one fatally, according to city data.

The mayor and the police superintendent have tried to shift blame for the shootings to the courts and the state’s attorney, alleging that would-be shooters are being let off the hook. Dozens of violent incidents committed by offenders who were out on bail have contributed to a narrative that the courts are letting shooters on the streets.

“I hear a lot about what the state's attorney is doing,” Brown said at a news conference this week, referring to the prosecutor’s office. “The courts release [violent offenders] back into the community, creating an unsafe environment for all of us. Chicago police officers are doing their job when we charge [violent offenders] with murder. That's doing our part.”

In an interview with a Chicago television station Thursday, Timothy Evans, the chief judge of Cook County’s Circuit Court, said the mayor and the superintendent don’t appear to be well informed.

His office released figures that said that from 2017 to 2020, only 3 percent of felony defendants and 5 percent of misdemeanor defendants released pretrial go on to commit a violent crime during their release.

Evans said he’s concerned, but said that locking up every defendant before trial comes with consequences.

“That would keep 95 percent of the people in jail pretrial when they are presumed innocent,” he said, “when 3 or 5 percent of the people are violating the law.”

A Chicago Tribune investigation last year found that Evans’ office may have undercounted repeat violent offenders out on bail.

The Cook County State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx, also disagrees with Brown’s assessment, and said the pandemic has created the conditions for the upticks in crime.

“The reality is 2020 was unlike any year that any of us have seen in our lifetimes from a global pandemic,” she said. “People [were] forced into their homes, [putting] strains on mental health.”

She said that while Brown claims the police are arresting people for gun crimes, they’re not capturing the people committing the shootings. She said many people are being arrested simply for gun possession.

“That is very different than someone using a gun in the commission of an offense,” Foxx said.

The back-and-forth illustrates a key difference in the focus of the two branches of law enforcement, which centers on who is considered a violent offender. In Illinois, gun owners are required to obtain a firearm owners identification card. Additionally, residents are not allowed to have a loaded gun in a car without a concealed-carry license. Many of the arrests the police department cites when asked about its record — including statistics listed on Brown’s Twitter feed — were of individuals who violated these requirements.

Of the more than 1,100 shooting incidents in 2021, only 26 have resulted in arrests, according to Chicago Police Department data. Meanwhile, more than 2,500 have been arrested for unlawful use of a weapon. About 86 percent of those arrested for unlawful use of weapons were Black people, according to police arrest data.

“I think there's a conflation that happens,” Foxx said. “Superintendent Brown has tried to make this point that anybody who possesses a gun [has] the potential for violence. There is no demarcation between a nonviolent gun possessor or a violent gun offender, and that simply isn't true.”

Others say Foxx isn’t using her office to properly keep Chicago’s streets safe. Pat O'Brien, a former judge and prosecutor who unsuccessfully ran against her in the 2020 election on a law-and-order platform, said Foxx should be doing more when police arrest gun violators with prior backgrounds.

O’Brien referred to Foxx’s statistics on those arrested for gun violations last year. He said there were more than 5,700 cases that were approved for unlawful use of a weapon, alleging that many of them had prior records.

“There is a crime being committed. Now for the people that don't have prior backgrounds, they've been an adult for a number of years, they seem less likely to be ... a problem, but they're still committing a crime.”