A top advisor to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told reporters last month that it’s a “misconception” to say gun violence is skyrocketing in Chicago.
“2020 did have a lot of shootings in it,” Matthew Saniie, Foxx’s chief data officer, said. “But it’s also important to put this into perspective.”
Saniie made his surprising claim during a video “training session” for journalists that Foxx’s office called “Reporter 101.” Through the hour-long presentation, Saniie covered well-worn ground as he laid out statistics that he said show Kim Foxx is not soft on crime and bail bond reform doesn’t contribute to increasing violence.
But he saved a new talking point for last: Reports of skyrocketing violence in Chicago are a “misconception.”
“2020 was a pretty gross year for murder,” Saniie allowed. “June and July were the worst June and Julies that we’ve had going back 60 years…May was the 2nd worst May. September was the sixth-worst September. But what we see coming out of that is things start to settle down and get to a place where we would generally expect them to be.”
Speaking on June 9, shortly after the first five months of this year outpaced 2020 in both shootings and murders, Saniee said, “I don’t know if we’re at a point where we’ve established a new pattern of violence that we should expect in our city.”
Saniie told the reporters that there is no reliable data regarding the number of shootings from more than ten years ago. So, he looked at murder data, which goes back several decades instead.
“A good proxy for shootings is murder,” Saniie claimed.
But is it a good proxy? The city’s population has declined 25% over the past sixty years, 20% since 1970, and 11% since 1980. But Saniie did not adjust historical murder counts for population changes.
So, his definition of “normal” and “what we should expect” appears to be based on skewed data.
In fact, the Chicago Tribune report that Saniie used as the source for his historical murder data also included per capita murder rates. The Tribune analysis found that 2016 and 2020 were the first two years that Chicago recorded 29 or more murders per 100,000 residents since 1996. Saniie did not include the newspaper’s per capita data in his presentation.
The paper reported, “the spike in violent crime that has plagued Chicago since 2016 has even more gravity when viewed in comparison with six decades of homicides in Chicago.”
But Saniie drew a different conclusion from the same data, calling the idea of skyrocketing violence a “big narrative that’s happening.”
“2020’s spike in murder and shootings are being driven by 4 particularly bad months that happen to fall right after COVID lockdown begins,” one slide of his presentation said. Neither Saniie nor his slide deck made any reference to civil uprisings or social unrest as possible contributing factors.
Also not factored into comparisons of recent murder counts with tallies from decades ago: advances in emergency medical services and trauma medicine. Many more people might be dying from gunshot wounds today if they received medical treatments from 60, 50, or 30 years ago.
After Saniie’s presentation, Foxx returned to the screen and told the journalists who were watching that “violence is on the rise everywhere.”
“This [presentation] is not an attempt to steer a narrative,” Foxx told the reporters. “Oftentimes, we are responding to a narrative.”
We asked the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office if it stands by Saniie’s claim that skyrocketing violence is a “misconception.” Here’s what they told us:
“Gun violence is plaguing cities big and small across the country, Chicago is no exception. In looking at crime data trends, while numbers are still high, shootings and murders in May and June of this year are down compared to the same time in the previous year.”
Chicago has recorded 72 homicides this month as of sunrise on July 21. If that pace continues, July 2021 will replace July 2020 as the worst July in the past 61 years.