Expressway shootings in Cook County at 188 this year, compared to 52 in 2019

Within weeks, shootings on Chicago and Cook County expressways are on course to quadruple 2019's total, Illinois State Police records show.

In 2019, there were 52 reported expressway shootings in the Cook region - about four a month on average. In 2018, the tally was 43.

But as of Tuesday, there have been 188 shootings so far this year, slightly more than 20 a month.

"These expressway shootings range from targeted based on gang affiliation, a result of other criminal activity, and some, unfortunately involve innocent members of the motoring public," state police Sgt. Delila Garcia said.

State police officials said they cannot speculate on the cause of the surge, which began in 2020 with 128 expressway shootings. But "it's gone up because all the shootings have gone up," said retired Chicago police commander and criminologist Marc Buslik. "Other cities have also seen that increase in public violence."

Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly announced the agency would double patrols on Chicago-area expressways on Sept. 30, a week with six violent acts on the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower and Stevenson expressways and I-57.

A Downers Grove man was injured from gunfire at 10:34 p.m. Sept. 30 on the Eisenhower. On Sept. 28, a Cicero man and his male passenger, a Chicagoan, both died after being shot on the Stevenson at about 11:30 p.m.

An Elgin man was shot and injured in his car on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) in Hoffman Estates at about 4 a.m. Sept. 26.

In more than 30 years, "we have not previously confronted the concentrated levels of gun violence we have faced in 2020 and 2021," Kelly said in a statement. Despite the state police's statewide responsibilities, "right now the greatest need is here, on Chicago's expressways."

As of Tuesday, 102 people had been injured on Cook County expressways and 17 killed compared to seven fatalities in 2020 and three in 2019.

Among the 2019 deaths was U.S. Postal Service worker Tamara Clayton, shot on Feb. 4 on route from her Country Club Hills home to her job near O'Hare International Airport. The 55-year-old was driving on I-57 headed for a late-night shift.

"She was the nicest human being on the planet," Clayton's daughter Jayla Shelton said. "She sacrificed so much for me."

Riskiest times, places

Where is the violence in 2021 most predominant? About 31% of shootings took place on the Dan Ryan, nearly 21% occurred on the Eisenhower, about 15% on the Bishop Ford Freeway, nearly 14% on I-57, 9% on the Stevenson, about 4% on the Kennedy, 2% each on I-80 and the Edens Expressway, and 1% on I-394.

An analysis of state data provided Sept. 24 showed gunfire was nearly three times as likely to happen after dark, between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., as the daytime hours, from 3 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The time of day with the most shootings was 9 to 10 p.m., with 18.

Tracking down suspects who open fire at high speeds at night is more than problematic.

"You've got less opportunity for witnesses. You have less opportunity for video evidence. There's not tremendous amounts of physical evidence anyway in a shooting except for maybe some shell cases. Now you're looking for shell cases from cars speeding down the expressway - it's very difficult," said Buslik, a criminology lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Northwestern University crime policy expert Wesley G. Skogan noted, "if there's a report of shots fired in a neighborhood in Chicago, there will be a squad car there in 2½ minutes. On a crowded highway with limited access and everyone moving at high speeds in one direction, it's hard to get there."

"Everyone moves on very quickly. The victims perhaps trying to find a hospital. The shooters rolling down the highway," added Skogan, professor emeritus at Northwestern.

Illinois State Police reported nine arrests from 2021 shootings as of Friday.

As to whether job losses and a COVID-19-related recession led to the expressway shooting spiral, Buslik said, "That motivation has always been around. People are not out there robbing because they lost their jobs during the pandemic."

Instead, many expressway feuds involve more than just gang territory now, he said.

"So much of the violence has shifted away from just pure gang conflict to interpersonal conflict," Buslik said. "Then it's not a matter of geography."

And social media exacerbates tensions.

Surroundings matter

Skogan noted, "what happens on expressways in Chicago in some degree is reflecting what happens in the neighborhoods that surround them. The two expressways that have seen the biggest count of gun violence are the two expressways that connect to high-crime neighborhoods."

Clayton's killing is still unsolved. For her daughter, "it's hard to get peace because her murderer is still out there," Shelton said.

Chicago police used to patrol expressways in their jurisdiction and investigate shootings, but over time those responsibilities were handed over to the state police, Skogan and Buslik said.

A review of 2021 expressway shootings in January and February provided by state police showed a majority occurred in Chicago.

Meanwhile, overall shootings through Wednesday in Chicago totaled 2,801, contrasted with 2,519 during the same period in 2020, the Chicago Police Department reported. Compared to two years ago, shootings have increased by 68%.

In February, the Illinois State Police announced $12.5 million in state funding would be used to purchase and install automatic license plate readers at 47 spots on Cook County expressways to help investigate shootings.

The agency has multiple ongoing initiatives to combat the violence on expressways, including specialty teams dedicated to that mission, Garcia said.

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Illinois State Police walk in formation on the inbound I-94 Expressway near 79th Street, looking for evidence of a shooting that wounded a woman. Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times, March 2019
Illinois State Police officers look for evidence after shutting down the inbound I-94 Expressway after a woman was wounded in a shooting. Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times, March 2019
Illinois State Police investigate a stretch of the I-94 Expressway for evidence of a shooting that left a woman wounded. Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times, March 2019
Illinois State Police investigate a stretch of the I-94 Expressway near 76th Street for evidence of a shooting that left a woman wounded. Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times, March 2019
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