After tragic 2021 for expressway shootings, does 2022's downturn have staying power?
There's no question 2021 was a horrific year for shootings on Illinois tollways and highways, with 310 reported occurrences compared to 147 in 2020 and 51 in 2019, according to Illinois State Police data.
The unknown is whether a decline in gunplay eight weeks into 2022 has staying power. As of Sunday evening, there were 26 shootings reported on state highways and tollways, contrasted with 37 year to date in 2021, a 30% decline.
Does that indicate a trend? "I think that remains to be seen," ISP Director Brendan F. Kelly said in a Thursday interview. "We're utilizing every resource at our disposal to focus on the areas where we see the greatest amount of interstate shootings but we look for long-term trends."
State police recorded 24 expressway homicides in 2021, and six shootings with fatalities in January and February of last year. No deaths have been reported in 2022, so far.
"I'm thinking shootings are down due more to the snowy weather in the city, rather than an increase in civility," said veteran traffic and spot news reporter Kris Habermehl. "Feuds and bad blood continue unabated on social media, which oftentimes lead to expressway hits."
Habermehl also observed there seemed to be fewer state troopers patrolling during the pandemic, emboldening expressway assailants.
The number of ISP troopers, special agents and officers has ping-ponged from 1,765 sworn personnel in mid-2019 up to 1,836 in mid-2020 and down to 1,816 in mid-2021. On Dec. 31, 2021, the head count was 1,783, and as of Jan. 31, 2022, it stood at 1,774, officials said.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who's in a reelection battle, announced plans to hire 300 ISP cadets in his budget proposal.
Republican gubernatorial candidates have targeted violence such as expressway shootings in their campaigns. "Crime in Illinois is out of control because of J.B. Pritzker's anti-police, pro-criminal policies," Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said in a recent statement.
State police staffing hit a low in 2017 with levels at 1,625. "There's been a steady increase over the past three years as we prioritized rebuilding," Kelly said.
Trooper recruitment was high in the 1990s but that cohort is aging out, meaning accelerated retirements. Also, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions reduced the number of recruits who could attend the residential academy, he noted.
Currently, "we have two cadet classes about to graduate in March and another two that start in May." If the 300 additional cadets are approved, that class should graduate in 2023 "which will put us well ahead," Kelly said.
Where are the shootings?
The bulk of 2022 shootings have occurred in Chicago and the south suburbs, with 15 on I-57, the Dan Ryan Expressway and Bishop Ford Freeway.
The deadliest roads in 2021 included: the Dan Ryan with 80 or 26% of 310 shootings; the Eisenhower Expressway with 51 or 16%; the Bishop Ford with 44 or 14%; I-57 with 39 or over 12%; the Stevenson Expressway with 29 or 9%; and the Kennedy Expressway with 13 or 4%.
Guns were also drawn on tollways, seven shootings on the Tri-State (I-294), four each on the Reagan Memorial (I-88) and Jane Addams (I-90), and one on Route 390.
Here are some examples of suburban expressway shootings in 2021.
• 3 p.m., Feb. 24, on westbound I-88 east of Route 53 near Lisle.
• 4:58 a.m., July 22, on the southbound Edens Expressway at Old Orchard Road near Glenview; injuries occurred.
• 2:35 a.m., Aug. 22, on the westbound I-290 ramp to Lake Street near Elmhurst.
• 8:09 p.m., Sept. 14, on westbound I-88 east of Orchard Road near Aurora.
• 6:50 p.m., Oct. 6, on northbound Route 53 south of Lake-Cook Road.
• 6:02 p.m., Nov. 3, on eastbound Route 390 east of Meacham Road near Schaumburg; injuries occurred.
Since the fall, the state has installed 99 license plate reader cameras on the Dan Ryan Expressway with 200 more cameras coming. In addition, the state deployed troopers from across Illinois to assist teams in the Chicago metro area.
Most expressway shootings involve people who know each other, but a few result from random road rage, Kelly explained.
And unlike James Bond movie car chases, there are few if any expert marksmen taking aim.
"Usually the firearms are stolen, usually the cars are stolen as well," Kelly said. "Very rarely do these individuals have any appropriate firearms training so it's inherently dangerous to the public ... and this is why it is such a top priority for us."