Social media is to blame for River North’s violent crime “perception,” local police commander says

The first indication that we might write this story came via a social media message Tuesday evening.

“Did you happen to join the public safety webinar for River North?”

“Afraid not. You?”

“I’m in it now. It’s a joke. I don’t understand how the city plans on getting a handle on crime if they don’t acknowledge that shootings, murder, sexual assault and vehicle theft are all up.”

“You’re right. But it’s what they do.”

We speak from experience. CWBChicago was established in 2013 not because a group of Wrigleyville and Boystown residents was concerned about a years-long increase in robberies. It was established because a string of local police commanders, their community policing officers, and the alderman (Hi, Tom!) lied about the problem and refused to address it.

Our early work was, um, unkind at best. But it got the job done. The lies became far less frequent. The police commander made significant operational changes to address the problem, and subsequent commanders built on his improvements. Robberies in Wrigleyville and Boystown dropped to 20-year lows and have stayed there.

We’ve mellowed a bit since then, but the piss and vinegar came roaring back while watching a recording of the River North webinar this week. The area’s newly-appointed police commander broke out some of the police department’s tried and true smoke screens. He tried to chalk residents’ concerns up to social media hype. He cited statistics. And there were suggestions that the problems in River North are new.

They’re not new. The commander’s statistics were expertly curated. And the problem is not people’s “perception.”

Consider this an intervention.

“Perception” problem

“If you see a certain crime that it goes viral and it’s over and over, it just adds to the perception,” 18th District Cmdr. Jon Hein told residents. There’s a “perception [of] an increase in violence.”

After dubbing River North “probably one of the safest spots in the city,” he cited some statistics for the local police district, which sits between the lake, the river, and Fullerton Avenue.

Homicides are down 22%, he said. Robberies down 1%. Aggravated battery down 4%. Burglaries down 75%. Overall crime down 10%. He didn’t give a timeframe for “down.” Is that “down” from 2010? 2016? After pulling some numbers together, he appears to be comparing this year to last year.

First things first. Through September 15, crime in the district is down 1.56% from last year, not 10%, according to the city’s data portal. Not having waves of riots and looting sprees has its benefits.

In River North specifically, there were 14 fewer crime reports through September 15 this year compared to the same riot-ripped period last year. A reduction of less than 1%.

This year’s absence of riots and looting also accounts for the 75% decrease in burglaries that Hein trotted out. Five days of looting has a way of driving up burglary reports.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Murders down 22%? True. Across the district, there have been seven murders this year compared to nine during the same period last year. Two of last year’s murders occurred within 15 minutes of each other during unbridled rioting on the night of May 30.

While this year’s murder tally is “down 22%” from last year, it’s still the second-worst for Near North since 2005.

But this meeting was about River North, not the entire district. How are murders pacing in River North? Actually, murders are down in River North this year from four (including one during the riots) to two.

Nice.

For some reason, though, Hein didn’t talk about non-fatal shootings.

So far this year, there have been ten non-fatal shooting incidents in River North, that’s equal to the number of non-fatal shootings seen in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined.

Note: That’s the number of incidents, not the number of people shot. CPD doesn’t publish victim counts. So a triple-shooting with three victims only counts as one “incident.”

For the entire district, shooting incidents are up 31% compared to last year, 100% compared to 2019, 143% compared to 2018, and 162% compared to 2017, according to CPD’s CompStat reports.

We may have figured out why Hein didn’t mention non-fatal shootings.

Robberies down 1%? True for the entire district.

But in River North, robberies are up 46% this year. There have been 92 so far, compared to 63 last year. Now, robberies are down in River North if you compare them to the pre-COVID years of 2017, 2018, and 2019, when the area was bustling with people night and day. But, this year’s COVID-suppressed total is still higher than any other year from 2001 through 2016, according to city data.

Not all bad

River North residents have some advantages that residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown did not have when the Lakeview neighborhoods were overrun with robbery cases several years ago.

The primary advantage is that the local alderman, Brendan Reilly, has been publicly vocal and frank about the problem at hand. Another alderman who represents a portion of River North, Brian Hopkins, is also unafraid to be honest about the situation. Let’s just say Tom Tunney’s approach to having 280 people mugged in his ward during 2013 was … muted.

During Tuesday’s Zoom meeting, Reilly mentioned that one problem in River North is that police presence wanes after dark.

“When we creep into the evening hours, especially on the weekends, our police are buried in an avalanche of calls for service,” he said. “If you have more calls for service than you do officers, you know how that’s going to work out.”

He said he has been pressing Mayor Lori Lightfoot for more overnight patrols.

Interestingly, a lack of overnight police resources is one of the first things that then-19th District Cmdr. Elias Voulgaris addressed when he took on the Lakeview robbery problem several years ago. Over time, the district’s overnight shift had atrophied. So there were plenty of cops during the day but hardly any at night when Wrigleyville and Boystown’s bar strips came alive.

Reilly also spoke highly of Hein, who took command of the district on September 1.

“He’s a good law and order police officer,” Reilly said. “The first day, he took action on the hot spots.”

“I’m really, really impressed with him so far.”

Hein, in turn, spoke of his close relationship with one of his bosses, Dep. Chief Michael Barz.

“We work very close,” Hein said. “He has teams that can be deployed” when the district needs them.

“He’s very, very good about loaning officers.”

That seemed like an odd statement. Because last week, when people celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day overran downtown, the local police dispatchers sent out a call for other police districts to send reinforcements. The other districts, busy with their own problems, refused.

Barz even jumped on the webinar for a hot second.

“Let us know what you need,” Barz said from his car.

Not long after that, Barz was demoted from deputy chief to captain. He’s now working in a district station. No reason has been given.

Not new

During a press conference Monday, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown said River North’s problems began in July. And during Tuesday’s web meeting, participants sometimes suggested the problems were new.

The problems did not start in July, and they are not new. River North’s violent crime issue has been building for years. We’ve written about it.

In a January 2018 report for CWBChicago subscribers, our team said the following:

For five consecutive years, violent crime has increased in Near North without effective countermeasures being taken.

Violent crime—homicide, criminal sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated battery—increased 24.5% compared to 2016. Compared to 2013, violent crime last year was up 97.7% in Near North.

Near North’s violent crime rise is being driven by robberies and, to a lesser extent, criminal sexual assaults (CSA).

Reported robberies were up 41% last year compared to 2016 and up 110% compared to 2013. Here again, four consecutive years of increased robberies have gone without effective counter-activity.

In a 2018 private report for a Tier 2 subscriber who lives in the area, we wrote:

It is important to recognize the ballooning violent crime subcategory, which consists of homicide, criminal sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated battery. Violent crime reports have increased every year during the study. In 2017, violent crime reports in the area were up 23% compared to the year before and up 94% compared to 2013. With the exception of homicides, which are essentially flat over the study period, every violent crime has seen significant increases during the study period. The driving force behind the violence increase is the area’s robbery rate, which is up 123% since 2013.

Our report also included a heat map that showed violent crime was moving from other parts of the police district to River North:

The Hubbard Street nightlife district was and continues to be the “hottest” area for muggings in the study area. The appearance of less intensity near Chicago/State during 2017 is not the result of significantly fewer robbery cases being reported around that intersection. Rather, the increase in robberies near Hubbard Street is so great, the Chicago/State performance simply appears “cooler” by comparison

From our report to subscribers about 2018 crime trends:

Violent crime is also at the highest levels seen in our study. The violent category, which includes homicide, shootings, criminal sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated batteries, is up 91% compared to 2014’s low … The intersection of Clark and Division has the greatest concentration of incidents followed by State Street between Hubbard and Ohio.

Specific crimes that are at six-year highs include assault, aggravated battery, shootings (tie), homicide (tie), criminal sexual assault, battery, deceptive practice, robbery, sex offense, theft, and weapons violations.

We issued another report to subscribers at the start of last year:

Violent crime: There is literally no good news to report in this category for the Near North Side. Violent crime rose about 5% in 2019, reaching its highest level during our study period. Last year was the seventh consecutive year that violent crime rose on the Near North Side and the category has increased over 100% during the study period. Robberies are driving the increase, with more cases reported last year than in any other year during the seven-year study. Also notable is shooting incidents, which reached a high water mark last year. Aggravated batteries also reached a study period high in 2019 and are now reported at a rate 100% higher than in 2013.

Keeping in mind that our collective brainpower is barely sufficient to prepare a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, how did we identify these problems when the police department did not? It’s a mystery.

Now, you may be wondering something. What happened to the police commanders who were in charge of the Near North district as violent crime increased without being addressed?

They were both promoted to deputy chief.

You can support CWBChicago’s start-to-finish tracking of court cases by becoming a subscriber today!

Note: For statistical purposes, we defined “River North” as the area west of Michigan Avenue and south of Chicago Avenue with the Chicago River as the west and south boundaries. The city’s crime data portal is available here.