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Chicago’s Murder Rate Is Rising, But It Isn’t Unprecedented

Donald Trump sent a tweet last night decrying Chicago’s murder rate and threatening to “send in the Feds” unless it goes down.

Chicago’s murder rate is high, and it has risen significantly in the last two years. But the recent rate of killings is not unprecedented: During the mid-1990s, Chicago experienced a higher toll of murders than it did in 2016.


Nor, despite the attention it often gets from Trump and others, is Chicago uniquely dangerous among U.S. cities. According to preliminary data compiled by my colleague Jeff Asher, Chicago had the eighth-highest murder rate among big U.S. cities in 2016. Cities including St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit have much higher rates, as do a host of other towns scattered throughout the United States.

Trump made the murder rate a focus of his attention during the campaign, as well. But both in Chicago and on the national level, the murder rate during the 1990s was significantly worse than it is now. Other kinds of violent crime have persistently fallen since that time as well and, unlike murder, haven’t shown a big increase in recent years.

Trump reported in his tweet that “killings” are up 24 percent from 2016. That’s consistent with Chicago Police Department data cited by the Chicago Tribune,1 but it may not mean much — with less than a month of data in 2017 so far, estimates of the murder rate increase are incredibly volatile. Numerous factors can contribute to short-term spikes (or dips) in the murder rate: This January has been exceptionally warm,2 for example, and we know that warmer weather tends to increase violence. Furthermore, the rate of shootings has not increased as much as murders in 2017, and shootings are a better barometer of gun violence than murders. There are also signs that Chicago’s police are changing their approach in response to the recent violence; that’s important because there is evidence that the rise in murder was at least partly related to a pullback in proactive policing since 2015. If new police strategies prove effective, and if trends in the weather and the deadliness of gun violence become more normal, Chicago’s murder rate may drift lower even without Trump’s intervention.


  1. Data available directly from the police department shows a smaller 2017 murder total than the Tribune, but it is possible the department’s online database isn’t fully up-to-date.

  2. Eighteen of the 25 days so far in January 2017 have exceeded their historic average temperatures.

Rob Arthur is a former baseball columnist for FiveThirtyEight. He also wrote about crime.