Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=172599
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Meghan A. Dwyer and Kelsey Swanekamp/MEDILL


Wanna know how many shootings in Chicago? Good luck

by Meghan A. Dwyer
Nov 11, 2010


I bet you have no idea how many shootings there have been in Chicago this year.

Me either.

And it’s not because I haven’t tried to find out. About two months ago, I started reporting on crime and public safety. In light of the on-again, off-again handgun ban and Supt. Jody Weis’ insistence that there are too many guns out there, I was certain the Chicago Police Department would track shootings.

And by shootings, I meant just that. Any time a loaded gun was fired. I thought that was clear enough.

So I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out “how many shooting incidents (with any kind of firearm) occurred in Chicago between January and September 2010.”

Little did I know that my request was an instant giveaway that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

When I finally got a response, the letter stated: “after a thorough search it was determined that the department has no existing records responsive to your request.”

But, as a courtesy, the department offered up the total number of aggravated batteries with firearms: 1,427. Well, thanks.

But I soon found out that’s not exactly what I needed.

The Chicago Police Department records crimes in a very specific way. Aggravated batteries with firearms are incidents in which someone is shot. But according to Sgt. Antoinette Ursitti, a department news affairs officer, this only includes the number of incidents, not victims. If five people are shot in a club, it’s recorded as a single incident even though a minimum of five shots were fired.

And when three people were shot Wednesday morning in front of a Taco Bell next to Wrigley Field, police said the case report classified it as a single incident of aggravated battery with a firearm.

Ursitti told me I should have requested the number of aggravated batteries with firearms and aggravated assaults with firearms. An aggravated assault with a firearm describes a shooting in which nobody is hit. But it can also include incidents in which people threaten you with a gun but don’t actually shoot.

And when I asked Ursitti if a drive-by shooting was considered a shooting, she said no. The police don’t consider anything a shooting unless a bullet hits something or someone. “An aggravated assault is not a shooting,” Ursitti said.

What? Even though a gun is fired it’s not a shooting?

I was baffled.

But I soon realized we were talking about different things. To the CPD, a shooting means there was a victim. To me, it didn’t matter.

Police classify a victimless drive-by shooting as an aggravated assault with a firearm. But if you ask them if it’s a shooting, the answer is no. That’s why they didn’t give me the numbers of aggravated assault with firearms when I asked for the number of shooting incidents.

So I called a criminologist. He wasn’t exactly surprised.

“Most policing agencies don’t keep data in a way that informs the public,” said Tracey Siska, a criminologist with the Chicago Justice Project. He walked me through some of the crime classifications, and explained how the CPD reports data to the FBI. He suggested that I might have better luck with the Office of Emergency Management and Communications because it classifies crime more thoroughly.

I submitted a FOIA request to the emergency management office requesting the same thing, except I added, “I am interested in the number of shots fired, period, regardless of how many people were hit or died.”

Denied. Again.

They explained that my request was “not a FOIA request for documents, but rather a request that the city provide answers to questions.” It added that if it were a FOIA request, OEMC does not maintain records regarding the number of shootings in Chicago.

So I called Ursitti again and asked her what I needed to request how many shots have been fired, period, in Chicago.

We decided I should ask for the number of victims of aggravated batteries with firearms, the number of victims of aggravated assaults with firearms and the number of robberies with related aggravated batteries with firearms. And I would need to specify that the robbery request be broken down by number of victims of aggravated batteries with firearms.

Again, what? Why robberies?

Because robberies are higher on the crime-reporting food chain. If you rob someone and then shoot them (and they live), it’s counted as a robbery and not a battery.

“In a case report you are able to put down multiple designations, but it will default to the hierarchy,” Ursitti said.

But this still doesn’t include the number of shootings that are never reported.

So I also submitted a FOIA to the Illinois Department of Public Health to see how many people had been admitted to Chicago hospitals with gunshot wounds this year. I’m still waiting on the response, but I’ve since realized that you can be treated for a gunshot wound without being admitted to a hospital.

Here we go again.

According to a crime data analyst for CeaseFire, Charlie Ransford, the police department’s online crime database, CLEARMAP, is about 20 percent off when it comes to reporting factual crime data.

How does he know that?

CeaseFire and the police department have a special agreement.

The police give CeaseFire specific shooting data – data that I can’t necessarily get through FOIA. In return, CeaseFire can only share the data in the aggregate.

This means that specific information, like addresses, cannot be published or shared with people like me.

Even then, Ransford said, there’s a concern that the cops might stop sharing information altogether.

The simple truth is that we don’t know how much gunfire there is in our city. We know that crime is bad, but we don’t know how bad.