Most people think of Chicago and its harsh winters, but the summers can be just as brutal. For five days in July 1995, Chicago battled triple digit temperatures. Roads buckled, draw bridges needed to be watered down in order to close properly, and murder rates went through the roof. All together, the heatwave claimed over 700 lives. Today, as Chicago faces one of its hottest summers in decades, fears about a significant rise in violent crime have gripped the city.
For a short period of time, Chicago enjoyed a crime drop as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the city's most impoverished and crime ridden neighborhoods, however, people have begun to emerge from the lockdown in defiance of the governor's stay-at-home orders. April alone saw 56 murders and 207 shootings, a shockingly high amount given the fact a deadly virus plagued the city at the same time. With May's crime statistics due to release soon and the sweltering month of June just around the corner, the Chicago crime epidemic is only expected to get worse.
A quick study of publicly available data indicates a strong correlation between the rise of crime and high temperatures. In 2014, the United States enjoyed a modern low in its national murder rate. Then, in 2015 and 2016, it unexpectedly rose to higher levels. Although there are several reasons that undoubtedly contributed to the rise in crime, it is interesting to note that in 2014 the US was enjoying one of its coolest years on record, while the other two years were warmer than average.
In 2019, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a research report that analyzed temperature, crime reports, arrest counts, and service call records from 2010 to 2017 from the Los Angeles Police Department, the country’s third-largest police department. Its results were truly stunning. On days with a temperature above 85 degrees, there was nearly a 5.7% increase in violent crime on average.
Another report, published in 2018, focused on spikes in heat and its relation to indoor and outdoor crime. It found that during days with high temperatures, violence that occurred inside remained relatively consistent, while outdoor violence grew exponentially
Now that the correlation is clear, we must explore the reasons behind heats impact on crime. First and foremost, the opportunities and reasons to commit violent crime grow significantly with warmer weather. People are out, spending time with others and traveling to other places. Thus, it is evident that more social interaction leads to an increased chance of violence.
Second, summer breaks from school and more free-time give teenagers idle hands, and as the old adage goes, "idle hands are the devil’s plaything." A quick analysis of Chicago Police Department gang statistics from 1991 through 2004 shows that crime grew exponentially during the summer months, with more than 31% of victims and assailants below the age of 20. With more people out and about, these teenagers find themselves in increasingly hostile and harmful social interactions, and thus surrounded by the growing chance of violence.
Common sense also dictates that high temperatures leads to anger. Since the dawn of time, people have become more frustrated and angry when overcome by heat. There is little doubt in the scientific community in regards to this causation. Increased heart rate, aggressive beliefs, and feelings of hostility all rise while comfort and logic decrease.
Lastly, although not widely studied, is the increased consumption of alcohol during warmer months. The more people drink, the less brain cells they have, and thus the already debasing effects of the heat are amplified.
Heat will only amplify what has been true for well-over a century: the 'City of Big Shoulders' is truly a city of crime. Al Capone's ruthless rule of Chicago's underworld during the 1920s became famous for its brutality, with this one gangster alone responsible for murder of nearly 700 people. During this time, the Thompson Submachine Gun, a weapon meant for trench clearing during the First World War, gained the nickname 'Chicago Typewriter' for its distinct echo that rippled between the city's buildings as mafiosos engaged in bloody urban gunfights. Chicago continues to uphold that historical tradition today, with nearly 190 homicides having been committed this year alone. The original decrease in crime during the COVID-19 pandemic, humorous in a dark, twisted way, is also extremely saddening. When it takes a deadly virus to lower the amount of blood flowing in the streets, the city and state government should turn to the mirror for serious self-introspection. The strategies and tactics utilized by the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police have failed miserably to lower ever-growing crime rates. To make matters worse, with the temperature slated to be at an all time high this summer, the city is in for quite the ride.
As the summer of 2020 begins and the temperature starts to rise, there's only one question left to ask: can Chicago take the heat?
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.