Despite a statewide shelter-in-place order to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, the city of Chicago is still facing high levels of gun violence.
“It’s like a double whammy. We are catching it double. We have the virus and the violence to worry about,” Rodney Phillips, a violence prevention outreach worker in Chicago tells TIME. “It’s just an uphill battle.”
Some police departments have seen crime rates fall since outbreaks emerged in their cities. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) reported a 20% dip in crime over the last two weeks of March after declaring a state of emergency over COVID-19. Los Angeles has also seen an 11% decrease in crime over the month of March.
But while Chicago’s crime rates as a whole have dropped since Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 21, there have been more than 80 shootings across the city, according to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). At least 12 people have died.
Gun crime prevention activists cite a combination of factors — including stretched police resources, socio-economic concerns within low-income neighborhoods and even the impact of warmer weather — as impacting the violence.
In the week before the stay-at-home order was announced, 25 shootings were recorded in Chicago. In the first week since, there were 41 shootings; in the second week, there were 40. (In 2019, the same period — March 30 to April 5 — saw 28 shootings.)
On Tuesday, April 7 alone, 21 people were shot — including a 5-year-old girl sitting outside a Southside residence. Seven were killed; one victim was a 27-year-old woman who police believe was hit by a stray bullet. It was the single worst shooting day this year in Chicago.
“People know who the shooters are. You know who you are. These cowards cannot be given any shelter,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an April 8 press conference, calling for a reduction to gun violence. “In the middle of this worldwide pandemic, our precious health resources need to be treating COVID-19 patients and those needing acute care.”
Outreach workers like Rodney Phillips usually spend a lot of time on the streets in areas prone to gun violence, trying to quell conflicts between individuals and gangs. Since the crisis began, however, social distancing mandates and the stay-at-home order mean their face-to-face mediation efforts are not happening as frequently (if at all). Instead, they are left de-escalating disputes and checking in with their contacts over phone calls, text messages and via social media, which they say makes their work more challenging.
Community organizers and gun violence prevention activists are now also working to educate people on the virus and the importance of social distancing.
Illinois currently has the ninth most coronavirus cases of all 50 U.S. states, and the eighth most deaths. The state’s coronavirus “curve” is continuing to rise, with 16,424 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 529 deaths as of April 10, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University. In the Chicago metropolitan area specifically, there are 7,230 confirmed cases and 218 deaths.
Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood — the area where the 5-year-old girl was shot on April 7 — has the most coronavirus cases, with 312 confirmed as of April 10 according to the Illinois Department of Health. The city’s West Ridge neighborhood has the second most with 298 confirmed cases, following by Chatham at 276 confirmed cases and Roseland which has 251. Auburn Gresham, Chatham and Roseland are all considered low-income neighborhoods, and are each home to a majority black population.
Demographic data on COVID-19 infections released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that African Americans are being “disproportionately” impacted by the virus. Based on 1,482 coronavirus patients across 14 states, black patients made up a third of the cases, while being only 18% of the states’ total population. “These findings, including the potential impact of both sex and race on COVID-19-associated hospitalization rates, need to be confirmed with additional data,” the CDC concluded.
In Chicago specifically, 70% of COVID-19 fatalities were African American, according to data released on April 6. The African American community makes up 30% of the city’s population.
“Years of systematic racism, lack of investment and high unemployment have left our community vulnerable to this pandemic,” Alderman Howard Brookins, whose ward includes Auburn Gresham, told local news station WTTW. “Hopefully this disparity will shock the consciousness of people of good will to work hard to close the health care gap that exists in the African American community.”
Statistics also show that low-income, minority areas are being affected more by the virus in cities across the U.S. dealing with large scale outbreaks. In New York City, data released by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that the highest numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 consistently come from non-white and low-income neighborhoods. Disenfranchised parts of Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin and Charlotte, North Carolina have shown similar trends.
Anthony Guglielmi, a CPD spokesperson, tells TIME that crime levels have “ebbed and flowed” since the start of the epidemic. The CPD does not currently believe there is any conclusive evidence on how the virus is impacting violence; the rate of violent crime overall is down in the city for March 2020 compared to March 2019 — but not for shootings. (Other crimes and incidents of violence that occur more often in close quarters are also anticipated to increase — like domestic violence, for example. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a growing number of callers are citing the pandemic as a factor influencing their abusers.)
Guglielmi adds that many officers’ jobs — particularly beat cops — have pivoted during the epidemic. “It’s almost like we’ve become public health officers,” Guglielmi says. “We spend the same amount of time every day fighting violence as we do trying to tell people to stay off the streets.”
“To be honest, a lot of people are not listening to the stay-at-home orders,” Phillips notes. “To some people, social distancing or the coronavirus doesn’t take precedence over [other] struggles they have in their lives.”
“All you have to do is go on the Southside and you’ll see groups of people hanging out and you’ll see police parked not doing anything [about it],” says Corey Brooks, the Executive Director of Project HOOD, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that works to end violence in the city. (Guglielmi says police are now working to disperse groups ignoring social distancing rules.)
Like so many other frontline workers, members of the CPD have been impacted by the pandemic. A total of 151 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, as of April 9. On April 2, the first officer in the department died as a result of the virus; a second officer died on April 10.
“His sacrifice underscores the threats that are faced by public safety employees who are not by nature of their profession allowed to shelter in place,” Chicago Interim Police Superintendent Charlie Beck said of the first fatality at a press conference on April 2 .
Although they aren’t officially designated as frontline and essential workers, outreach workers like James Sims consider their work to be equally important. “With or without the coronavirus, there’s always going to be violence so we have to keep working,” Sims says.
During her April 8 press conference, Mayor Lightfoot emphasized the strain the COVID-19 outbreak is having on Chicago’s hospitals and medical staff, saying that continued gun violence could become too much for the city to handle.
“Every day we are measuring our precious health care resources,” Lightfoot said. “To be blunt, if our ICUs are filled with gunshot victims, our ability to respond to this COVID-19 crisis will unnecessarily be compromised.”
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