Report — From the March 2014 issue

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Predicting murder on Chicago’s South Side

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Twenty-year-old Davonte Flennoy was killed on a Monday night in June 2012. As the setting for a murder, South Rockwell Street, in Chicago’s Marquette Park, was familiar enough to border on cliché. The last thing Flennoy saw as bullets entered his chest, arm, and head could have been the dumpsters artlessly ranked in the alley behind him or the razor wire curling atop a nearby chain-link fence. More than fifty other people had been shot throughout Chicago in the preceding ninety-six hours, ten of them fatally. Most of the shootings, and every one of the murders, occurred on streets like this one, in low-income neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.

Memorial for a murder victim on 87th Street. All photographs from the ongoing series South Side © Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Memorial for a murder victim on 87th Street. All photographs from the ongoing series South Side © Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

That spring was a bloody one in the city, with homicides up nearly 35 percent over the year before. More than three fourths of the victims were black, most from a cluster of neighborhoods in the south and west: Englewood, Chicago Lawn, New City, Roseland. South Side activists feared the consistency of the crime reports might have a numbing effect, allowing people in the safer and whiter parts of town to tune out the distinctly personal tragedy of each shooting. On the day Flennoy was killed, dozens of activists had put on identical white T-shirts spattered with red paint, and nine of them had lain on the lawn outside St. Sabina church in the South Side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham. “These are not just statistics,” shouted Michael Pfleger, the church’s pastor, when NBC 5 showed up. “These are human beings.” They hoped to individualize the victims, but their matching costumes only seemed to underscore the anonymity of the body count.

In fact, the sort of cold statistics Pfleger decried had identified Flennoy as a special case worthy of hands-on intervention. Almost three years earlier, the Chicago public schools had launched a pioneering program to determine exactly which of their 400,000 students were most likely to get shot. Consultants from MIT and the University of Chicago developed algorithms to comb through archived information such as juvenile-detention reports, attendance records, and test scores, initially flagging more than 200 names. Flennoy was high on the list, deemed more than twenty times more likely than the average student to suffer a gunshot wound. For the next two years, the school district assigned him a mentor in an attempt to defy the odds.

The schools’ violence-reduction program had burned through most of its funding by the time Flennoy was shot, but the core idea has been adopted by another city institution. Early in 2013, the Chicago Police Department launched a pilot program that would use crime data to rank thousands of Chicagoans according to their chances of being involved as either victim or offender in a murder. In March, each of the city’s district commanders was handed a list of twenty names. It was a radical departure from traditional “hot spot” policing, which treats everyone in high-crime neighborhoods as potential victims or threats. Big data, already widely exploited in such fields as marketing and health care, had entered the territory of the beat cop. The case of Davonte Flennoy might suggest how powerful the new analytic techniques can be, but it should also serve as a warning that predicting a death isn’t the same as saving a life.

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  • solidspine

    I lived in the Chicago area for many years, the south side, being 100 percent black has always been too dangerous to go to, do business in or even attend at a hospital.

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