An opening proviso: Chicago is not Dodge City. We’re in the middle of the pack for large cities, with markedly lower homicide rates than St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and many other places. Homicides are down 20 percent this year. Progress is happening.

Still, Chicago is a tough town, where people bear witness to far too much violence. On Sept. 19, 13 people were shot in one incident in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. More than usual, I was personally shaken by the grisly details; including a 3-year-old being shot in the face with an AK-47 or similar weapon. As of this writing, five suspects are now in custody. Only last summer, one was convicted of being a felon illegally in possession of a gun. Sentenced to boot camp, he was pretty quickly out on the street again.

Harold Pollack
Harold Pollack

Peter Nickeas covered these shootings, as he’s covered dozens of others on the night beat for the Chicago Tribune. His tactile sense of Chicago exemplifies what is ebbing away with the economic decline of many serious local newspapers. I video-chatted with Peter four days after the shooting. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Harold Pollack: Are you concerned about your safety, doing this work?

Peter Nickeas: I work overnights, 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. most nights. I take steps to mitigate whatever risk I'm exposed to. Only a couple of times have I been concerned for my immediate safety. Most of the time, I'm aware of what I'm going into before I get there. I have an idea of the nature of the shooting, either from scanner traffic or from sources. I try not to fly blind. I know the routes in and out. I know the neighborhoods well enough from traveling them to know safe ways to get from point A to point B for the most part.

Only a couple of times, something has happened where I've felt that I shouldn't be there, or sometimes that my safest bet is to stay still and wait until I have an opportunity to leave. Most nights I don't experience any major safety concerns. I don't take unnecessary risks. I'm aware of whatever risks I'm taking and make those decisions based on my comfort level. This hasn't stopped me from going anywhere. There hasn't been a crime scene where I've thought: "No. That's too dangerous or I'm concerned about my safety." That hasn't come up, and I don't think it will come up, because it's the city.

Harold: Let's talk about what happened on Thursday night. 

Peter: Just to be clear, this had been a busy night. Completely aside from the 13 people getting shot, there were three homicides. There were eight or nine other people wounded. This was a bad night by any standard.

A number of those homicides and nonfatal shootings had occurred before my shift started. I got there early and made coffee and had a small meal like I normally do, and then there was scanner traffic about a 3‑year‑old getting shot. It had started on Twitter at that point, too. There are a lot of scanner listeners in Chicago posting.

I grabbed our bag of field equipment ‑‑ laptops, scanners, notepads, things like that ‑‑ and I started to go. I said, "I've got to run. I'll post from out there if I can." [Another reporter] stuck around and started making calls and the scanner traffic almost immediately was that there were more gunshot victims. They weren't certain how many there were, but they needed more than just an ambulance for the 3‑year‑old.

While I was in the car heading to that scene, it just developed. You could hear on the scanner, "We have 10 victims plus a 3‑year‑old, and we need three extra than those last four ambulances." A supervisor said, "We'll call for 10 total and try to secure the scene and relay a description of the shooters to incoming police and anybody in the area."

They needed a rundown of the hospitals where the victims went, so the police could go talk to all the victims and get statements. They needed condition updates. They had to call News Affairs. It was just a hectic first couple of minutes.

When we got there, they were still pulling people out on stretchers. The kid was the first to go. He was out of there almost immediately in the first ambulance. The subsequent ambulances were still lining up 51st Street when we arrived. I say "we." The photographer got there 10 or 12 minutes before I did.

Cornell Square Park is pretty nice, with nice basketball courts. There's a play area, a fountain, AstroTurf, soccer field…. It was basically clean in the morning after the crime scene had been cleaned up. A large portion of the park faces 51st Street and extends about a block north. There's a cleanup house and a pool.

Harold: Yeah, I passed by on a ride-along with CPD two weeks ago. I didn't pay too much attention. We just drove past it, and that was it.

Peter: The scanner traffic suggested that the shooter (or shooters) had approached from the east side of the park on Wood Street near the entrance. This gated entrance is maybe five feet wide. That's the only means of exit toward Wood Street. They fired from that little location ‑‑ and effectively sealed off the east entrance into the crowd.

The shooters would have had clear lines of sight against anybody they were shooting at. To put a building between themselves and the shooter, the targets would have either jumped into this area where they were surrounded on three sides by cement walls or they would have had to make it back around the building. It's a straight line of maybe 35 yards to get to the end of the building and then to turn. It only takes a few seconds to discharge 14 rounds from an AK-style weapon. Fleeing people would not have made it around the corner, which probably accounts for the high number of victims.

Peter Nickeas

Harold:  You and I both -- you more intimately -- have heard details about many shootings. This struck me as especially shocking. I can process why a 19‑year‑old kid was walking around with a gun. I can process why people are in gangs. I just can't process somebody shooting a 3‑year‑old in the face with an AK‑47. That's just so depraved. Do we know what happened here?

Peter:  We don't yet. Nobody has been charged. It's not the first time…. I don't know how you define "mass shooting," but we've written about them. In the last 18 to 20 months, we've been keeping our own internal shooting data. It's difficult because we don't learn about every shooting, but it's a good picture of the gun violence in the city.

I think it's representative of what we see, 550 multiple-victim incidents. Now 400 of those, 440, whatever, are two-victim shootings. But there have been 90 or so with three victims and 50 or so with four victims. There has been a number with six, seven, and eight victims.

A few years ago, a car-wash shooting had nine victims. It's not uncommon for somebody to shoot into a crowd. What is uncommon is to have that many people hit. Many of these people were just unlucky. I think they probably weren't targets. The 3‑year‑old certainly was not. It's just that these guys wanted to hit a lot of people.

Every time somebody shoots up a party or a club or a gathering, block parties especially, you've got to ask: "In what world did you grow up? What environmental or behavioral factors led you to believe that firing into a crowd was a good course of action, even with that serving your goal of eliminating somebody? If your goal was to kill somebody, why shoot into a crowd? Why not just walk up onto them and do it?"

It just doesn't make any logical sense to me. I understand the business of it. Like you've mentioned, why a kid walks around with a gun. That's an understandable way of handling your business, especially if it's a survival thing or if it's a business thing. I don't know what end is served by shooting into a crowd. I don't get it.

Harold:  As I understand it, there were two gangs who were into it that were somehow related to this incident.

Peter: There's something like a three‑way conflict going over there between primarily black gangs, and then there are two Hispanic gangs that are fighting with each other also. If you stand across from the park and look at some of the garages, you can all see the different tagging. It's crazy to see so many different gangs in such a small area.

I don't know if you remember, but last year around Saint Patrick's Day 51st Street was a shooting gallery for a few days. There was something like 45 or 50 gunshot victims in a weekend. Twelve or 13 of them came from within two blocks of 51st Street between Halsted and Kedzie. So a three-mile stretch, four blocks wide is where all these shootings were happening. It wasn't all the same gang, but there are a lot of gangs over there.

Harold: The thing that so disgusts me is the realization that when we find out what happened, the motive will turn out to be the same old, stupid, code-of-the-street, adolescent turf stuff. If you look at what they're actually fighting over, so often it’s over nothing.

Peter: You mentioned there was some violence that could be rationalized, that we could understand. A business transaction for example, or a business territory, or things like that. I still don't see how shooting into a crowd serves that end. It just doesn't. I don't know that there's going to be an explanation that's going to strike many people as rational. I don't see how that happens. I can't see there being a eureka moment where it's like, "Oh, that makes sense."

When we were out in Little Village, one of these first early scenes where I went, I had one of those eureka moments where this woman said they were fighting over pieces of the street that aren't even theirs.

This other situation happened to be a tiny little gang that had maybe two blocks by two blocks. They were stuck between two big gangs. This guy was doing graffiti disrespecting gangs on both sides. You could see that the graffiti was wet when I got there. He had dropped the can when he got shot. He was shot in the head, fell in the alley. He had disrespected a gang.

Harold: I was reading some of the quotes that you have in your Cornell Square Park story. There was one from the mom of the 3‑year‑old. She just said, "My baby was shot with a gun that was bigger than he was."

Peter: They're using large-caliber rounds. It must have just nicked him if it only took off a piece of his face because we've heard about gunshot victims with damage from the 7.62 rounds, or from the NATO, 5.56 rounds. That it's life-changing. At that distance, these will take out a piece of flesh large enough to make a limb wound that would normally be minor, and turn it into a life-threatening critical injury.

The kid is incredibly lucky. We don't know if there was a second weapon fired of a smaller-caliber round. That would maybe explain the kid's luck, but there's been no indication of that at all. This kid was hit with a 7.62 round and is only going to require plastic surgery. He wasn't crippled. He was incredibly lucky. They all were. Anybody who's had a gunshot wound from a rifle at that range is lucky to be alive.

Harold:  What an off‑the‑shelf handgun does to lacerate the human body is something to see. None of those 13 people died, so the spotlight is going to move on. I suspect many of those people have life-changing injuries. Their lives and their families' lives will never be the same.

How does it change you to bear witness to this kind of stuff day in and out?

Peter: I don't know if I want to say I try to separate myself from it, but you just have to. I remind myself when I go out that wherever I go, people live there. The thing to think about is if you are raising a family in Back of the Yards, which -- if not for the gangs -- is a good location to raise a family. It's a close to the city. It's not terribly far from the lake. It's close to education.

How would you feel knowing the gangs are willing to fight with automatic weapons? What does that do if you are raising a kid there? When we went out there, we didn't know there were rifle casings. We heard on the way in that there was an officer safety message: "Be careful. We found high-caliber rounds at the scene."

They weren't from a handgun. We later found they were from a rifle. Residents described consistent-interval rapidly expended gunfire. So it was probably from an automatic weapon. Somebody wasn't pulling the trigger 14 times at equal intervals. Most people aren't trained that way. The shooter probably let out a long burst of automatic gunfire, based on what the police said, the witnesses. If I lived in the neighborhood, I would be even more fearful than I already was of having to confront or deal with that group of people.

You just try to say, "If I'm here, you have to try to explain how the violence ripples out." I try to get everything that I pick up when I'm out there from residents and things that I observed on the scene to stir into the story. That helps me personally, so I'm not taking so much of it out of the office with me. I have some means of release before I leave the office in the morning.

Harold: One poignant aspect of that story concerned the firefighters. They were out there hosing down the court, in part I guess so kids wouldn’t have to walk past a scene of carnage the next morning on the way to school. What is it like to come upon a scene like that?

Peter: That's pretty normal. That was a large scene. They taped off the entire basketball courts, and it was dark. But sometimes on the outside, especially if the body is still there, the blood that spills out especially from head wounds is a thick blood. It will sit a half an inch or an inch above the ground, it looks like.

It doesn't just pool in the low spots. It has a gel look to it almost. I can't even describe the consistency. It's like pudding almost. It's that kind of consistency, so they need to come hose it down because you can't leave it there. They'll call an engine, and they'll come and hose it down and make sure it's all in the sewer and it's gone. Sometime it'll stain, so they don't get it all. That may have happened on the basketball court. We saw a kid walking around, and there was a wide swath that was a darker tint than the rest of the court.

There's no way of knowing if it's blood or not, but they didn't do the whole court. They just did the main part of it. It might have went out into the sewer right next to the exit where the shooters were alleged to have fired from, and that was that. But how else do you clean up blood from a gunshot victim? It needs to be done.

Harold: I should say violence is down this year. Shootings are down. Homicides are down. Shootings are down. Can you see that?

Peter: At a certain point, it just becomes too much for us as an organization of reporters. I've been to 200 crime scenes this year. That's a lot for me and it's probably up there with anybody else in the city who is doing this, and that's maybe six, or eight, or 10 percent maybe of the shootings this year.

We're not even coming close to scratching the surface. If we were to do every single scene, there's just no way of doing that. And beyond that if you're living in a dangerous neighborhood, are you going to feel the difference?

Let's say you live in Englewood, and you go from 50 homicides last year to 38 this year, which would be a drop of about 25 percent, which is about what the city is looking at right now. Englewood goes from 55th, Garfield to 75th, from the Dan Ryan to the Divide. So a 20x22 block area goes from 50 to 40 homicides. Are you going to feel a difference in your safety? Does it feel like less is going on? I don't know.

The people I talk to can't notice a difference. You go out in the street, and they say: "No. There are still kids shooting at each other." There could be half this many homicides this year as there was last year and the city is still looking at 250 homicides and more like 1,200 or 1,300 nonfatal gunshot victims in a year. That could be down by half, and everybody would be celebrating. That's still a lot of gunshot victims. When I’m out there talking to people in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence, I usually don't feel that much of a difference.

Harold: That's sobering because it actually is an important difference, but maybe not one that feels real yet in the lives of everyday people.