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What I saw covering Chicago’s deadliest year

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Chicago crime scene
Chicago police officers
guarding a homicide scene.

Daniel
Brown


In 2016, Chicago experienced
780 homicides
, making it the deadliest year in the city in
nearly two decades.

The first homicide of the year came at 2:20 a.m. on New Year’s
Day in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood on the South Side.
Twenty-year-old DeAndre Holiday found himself on the wrong side
of an argument half a mile from the edge of Washington Park when
a man pulled out a handgun and shot him in the chest.

I got there just as the police were stringing up yellow tape
around the scene.

I was a crime reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times then, tracking a
never-ending string of shootings and violence. For more than a
year, I had a police scanner near my desk and listened to the
dispatcher say “we’re getting a ticket of a person shot” and
“shots fired,” among other depressing crimes.

I was working the overnight shift that night, as I usually did,
when the call went out over the scanner. “One of us should go,”
my coworker said.

When I got to the scene, it was silent, and a bitter wind ran
through my overcoat. I walked up to the line looking for
Holiday’s body then saw it mangled in the street, partially
covered by a white sheet.

One of the cops asked me to step back because the police were
tying up an extra line. I walked to the darkened sidewalk and
watched the tape blow in the wind and the blue lights bounce off
the brick homes and disappear into abandoned lots.

The silence didn’t last. One by one, I watched Holiday’s friends
and family members arrive in disbelief, then see his body.
Devastation and raw emotion quickly overwhelmed them.


chicago homicide
Police
officers searching for evidence after a man was shot in the
Little Village neighborhood on July 2 in
Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty
Images


One woman kept screaming, “Who shot him? That’s my baby’s daddy!”
A woman who appeared to be in her 70s wailed over and over “Wake
up!” She yelled and screamed in a way I’d never heard before, as
did the dozen or so others. Sometimes it was as if everyone were
screaming at once.

The cops moved an SUV in front of Holiday’s body, and an officer
took the older woman’s hand and led her away. At one point,
gunshots rang out a few blocks away. No one — not the police or
the friends or family — looked surprised.

That wasn’t the first shooting I went to, but it was the first I
had witnessed such devastation. I thought I knew how to handle
myself after scenes like that, but when I got home, back to the
world I’d known before, I felt numb.

A look I’ll never forget

Last year, more than
4,000
people were shot in Chicago, and shootings have become
so normalized that they rarely make the front page of the local
papers, let alone the national news.

About a month after Holiday’s killing, as the Super Bowl was
playing and my friends were posting pictures of their parties on
social media, I was in the Sun-Times newsroom listening to the
scanner scrolling through police zones.

“All right, we’re getting four people shot now,” the dispatcher
said. I pressed hold on the zone and listened. The dispatcher
said the victims were all 15 years old. My editor told me not to
go to the scene — no one was dead yet. But then I told her the
ages.

I raced my car down the highway to the Englewood neighborhood,
also on the South Side, where the shooting had happened. I found
a woman who looked to be in her 30s standing on the sidewalk with
a dazed disposition.


chicago crime homicide
People
seen after a shooting that left four people dead at a restaurant
on March 30 in Chicago.

Joshua
Lott/Getty Images


She told me she ran outside after hearing gunfire and kids
screaming and found eight or nine teenagers on a porch. Four of
them — three boys and a girl — were shot, and all were crying.
Some were throwing up. Thankfully, they all survived.

One of the kids told her that two men had walked up, asked “Are
y’all good?” and then opened fire.

I could see fear and trauma in her eyes. As she talked to me, her
kids peeked out from behind the white curtain of their
first-floor apartment. They looked terrified too. I’ll never
forget that. I sensed that they were scared not only because of
the shooting but also because she was talking to me, a
journalist.

The neighbor seemed nervous to talk to me. She asked me not to
use her name, like most witnesses I talked to after shootings,
and spoke quietly, as though she wanted to make sure no one heard
her.

It was only later that I learned the hard way that even appearing
to give information to a journalist could be dangerous.

‘You tryna get me killed?’

A few months later, I was in the office very late one day, or
early, depending on how you look at it. I heard on the scanner
that a male had been shot in the head. The dispatcher didn’t call
it a 0110 — the Chicago police code for homicide — but it sounded
like one. I drove to the scene to find out.



Chicago homicide
A
Chicago police officer taking a picture of a homicide
victim.

Daniel
Brown



When I got there, a body was in the middle of the street, and
there were only a few people around. I asked a guy walking down
the sidewalk whether he knew what happened, and he told me
something about where the shooters were standing.

“Over there?” I asked, pointing to a trash can.

“F— you, man,” he said. “You tryna get me killed?”

He stormed off. It dawned on me that, with one flick of the
wrist, I may have put him, and possibly myself, in danger. I felt
awful.

When I finally got to sleep that night, I dreamed that someone
kept pointing a gun at me. I woke up screaming. I rushed to my
computer, and there in my inbox was an email from a family member
of the victim. The person was swearing at and threatening me.

I couldn’t get the screams out of my head

By July, I was having trouble relating to my friends and family.

One night, I headed to a homicide scene in the neighborhood of
Austin on the West Side. The trees were covering the city’s
notoriously golden street lamps, and it was really dark. The
police had just taken the victim’s body away and were taking down
the yellow tape. I walked over to an older woman standing on the
sidewalk.


chicago crime homicide
People
watching as the police searched for evidence after a man was shot
in the Little Village.

Scott
Olson/Getty Images


When she and I finished talking, I walked over to three men
standing on the side of the house where the victim had been
killed. I had my camera on my shoulder and motioned as if I
wanted to ask them some questions.

One of the men took one look at me and said, “You better get the
f— out of here.” Another put his hand in his pants as though he
had a gun holstered there. I had a sudden realization that all of
the police officers had left the scene. The three of them started
cursing at me and walking forward.

My heart started racing. I said “All right” and turned and walked
at a brisk but steady pace to my car, trying to show neither fear
nor disrespect. When I got to my car, I looked back and saw them
down the street, still yelling at me. I felt stupid as hell.

I had been feeling weird since the New Year’s Day shooting. For a
day or two after visiting a scene, I would feel this peculiar
kind of tunnel vision. It was as though I were looking at the
world through a foggy television screen. I couldn’t touch or
focus on anything.

I couldn’t get the screams out of my head. While they were all
different, they were also all the same: the pain of losing
someone to violence.

Few people in my life understood what was going on.

The socioeconomics of murder

It wasn’t just the screams or the violence that made the scenes
hard to process. The causes of violence were readily on display
at almost every scene.


chicago crime homicide
Police
officers monitoring a vigil being held in the Park Manor
neighborhood to honor 11-year-old Takiya Holmes, who died after
being shot in the head by a stray bullet earlier this year in
Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty
Images


Most shootings in Chicago happen in about 10 of the city’s 77
neighborhoods, on the South Side and the West Side. Poverty,
racism, lack of opportunities, and more were apparent at every
scene, even in the smallest details. It made the suffering harder
to process.

When I’d drive from the Sun-Times office downtown to the crime
scenes, it was hard to miss the contrasts. The skyscrapers, plush
condos, and designer stores gave way to run-down buildings,
boarded-up schools and storefronts, and empty lots.

At one crime scene, where a 28-year-old had been shot dead on a
sidewalk, a young boy walked up and down the sidewalk along the
police tape. No older than 7, he would stop and stare at the body
every so often. As far as I could tell, it seemed normal to him.

Another shooting I covered happened at a memorial event. Nearly
100 people had gathered to remember a friend killed on the block
a few years prior when a man pulled out a gun and killed a man
and a woman and injured two more. A 16-year-old girl at the
memorial had an asthma attack during the shooting and died later
at the hospital.

At another, a 16-year-old boy was shot in his car after a man
walked up and asked where he was from. “I’m not about that,” the
boy’s friends told me he said. The man pulled out a gun and shot
him in the head.

“I just bought him a plane ticket to Mississippi, and now he’s
dead,” the boy’s mother told me.

It just felt as if bodies were piling up in my head.

Tired

This is just a small fraction of the scenes I saw in Chicago.

What’s awful is that what I saw pales in comparison to what some
reporters in the city have seen. And it certainly pales in
comparison to what the victims, their families, and all those
living in Chicago’s hardest-hit neighborhoods have experienced.


chicago crime homicide
The
vigil to honor Holmes.

Scott
Olson/Getty Images


But by the time I put my two weeks in, I was tired of living in
the dark.

I was tired of having to take two or three Xanax to fall asleep,
only to black out and then suddenly wake up four hours later in a
feverish sweat.

I was tired of the regular nightmares — my girlfriend at the time
told me I would frequently scream in my sleep.

I was tired of hearing the dispatcher say, “We’re getting a
ticket of a person shot. Person shot.”

I was tired of the constant guilt and I was tired of being
threatened and screamed at by the people I was trying to help —
though I certainly understood their anger and emotion.

It’s been about eight months since I quit, and I’m still
processing what I saw. I still get flashes of bodies or hear
screams when I see flashing police lights or a broken car window.

I think about how that year affected me sometimes — how it made
me feel numb, how I wore a scowl I couldn’t seem to shake.

Then I think about what I might be like if I grew up in one of
those neighborhoods I went to so often.

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