Andrew V. Papachristos is an associate professor of sociology at Yale University.
Thirty years ago, the tragic murder of 17-year-old basketball phenom Benji Wilson shocked Chicago and drew the nation’s gaze to the city’s depressingly high level of gun violence. Last year’s senseless murder of 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton had a similar effect, raising cries for the National Guard to rescue a city besieged by gang warfare. These two murders, 30 years apart, stood as evidence that not much had changed in the Windy City.
Except, of course, a lot has changed.
The year Benji died — 1984 — Chicago counted 740 murders. The worst was still to come, as the city’s homicide total climbed to an apex of 940 in 1992. By 2013, the year Hadiya was killed, there were 413 homicides, the fewest in nearly four decades.
If Chicago is safer today than it was 30 years ago, why does the city continually draw such negative attention, including the statistically inaccurate title as the nation’s “murder capital”?
Part of the answer is simple: Many Chicagoans simply don’t feel safe. Changes in statistics don’t translate into changes in feelings. Just because crime drops 30 percent in a neighborhood doesn’t mean people feel 30 percent safer.
But under the surface, perceptions are driven by something much less obvious and perhaps much more damaging in the long run than homicide counts: a massive “crime gap” between the country’s safest and most dangerous neighborhoods.
Anyone looking at a crime map in any city can tell you that violence tends to concentrate in particular places, and this remains true even as crime rates move up and down. The result is a huge gap, not only in rates of crime and violence across communities but in how people experience crime rates.
For example, the violent crime rate in Chicago’s West Garfield Park, one of the most violent parts of the city, fell nearly 30 percent over the past three years. Yet, its average homicide rate during this period of 64 per 100,000 is more than 20 times the rate of Jefferson Park on the city’s Northwest side.
Such a gap between high- and low-crime communities is not unique to Chicago. Similar gaps exist in New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis and numerous other communities. Criminologists have documented the severe concentration of crime on certain street corners and neighborhoods for more than a century in cities across the United States.
These days, people are paying closer attention to all sorts of gaps — the technology gap, the income inequality gap, the gender gap, the education gap — that contribute to growing inequality. Closing the crime gap should be at the top of the United States’ agenda, not just for safety’s sake (which is clearly important enough) but also to reduce inequities across our citizenry.
Closing the crime gap entails more than just policing and new city ordinances. It means thinking about ways to enhance the legitimacy and fairness of our criminal justice system. It means devising concrete ways to improve communities and families in our most at-risk communities. And it means thinking about how things we don’t ordinarily relate with public safety — such as housing prices and access to health care — perpetuate this gap.
America’s haves and have-nots are divided not just by how much people earn, where they went to school or what car they drive, but more fundamentally by whether they feel safe when they tuck their kids in at night.