Chicago Tribune - The rising homicide toll, 500 as of Friday, a 17 percent increase in slayings over last year -- has been a looming shadow over Chicago, plaguing residents and the city's leadership for much of the year.
Although Chicago had almost twice as many homicides 20 years ago as it did this year, the increase in violent deaths represents a backslide for a city that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants to move forward. And with Chicago's homicide rate exceeding those in some other major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and New York, Emanuel, ever mindful of the city and his administration's image, has seen the city's violence attract unwanted national attention.
Since taking the helm last year, Emanuel and his hand-picked police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, have made safer streets a top priority, with McCarthy declaring "the murder rate in this city is way too high."
But a particularly bloody winter in early 2012 has kept both men on the defensive, and residents on edge. As homicides climbed, Emanuel and McCarthy repeatedly have had to defend themselves, making it a point to publicly note short periods when the city goes without a murder or to highlight successful violence-reduction efforts in certain neighborhoods. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents decried the gun and gang violence that claimed the vast majority of this year's homicide victims.
Experts warn not to put too fine a point on year-over-year increases in homicides, but Chicago's tally this year is the highest since 2008.
Although everyone agrees the increase in violence is deplorable, what's more difficult to discern is exactly why Chicago's homicides have surged. But experts, police and community leaders have offered myriad possible factors.
In McCarthy's view, the proliferation of guns on Chicago's streets, which he said is unlike any other city in the country, and the division of gangs into smaller factions are to blame for the homicide surge.
Many of these factions, or "cliques," run low-level narcotics markets on street corners and flaunt their activities on YouTube and other social media websites, sometimes to taunt other factions or members of rival gangs. That often leads to violent skirmishes on the street, he said.
A gang audit conducted by the department earlier this year identified 650 factions in Chicago, up from 500 when a similar audit was performed several years ago, McCarthy said. Police statistics show that roughly 1 in 4 of this year's homicide victims were affiliated with the Gangster Disciples -- Chicago's largest street gang that has gradually splintered into about 250 factions.
Those gang audits have helped the department keep better tabs on the factions, McCarthy said. The audits' goal is to get the specialized gang units to share more intelligence with beat officers to try to prevent retaliatory gang violence.
He's credited that and other strategies, including making it mandatory for gang members arrested on misdemeanor charges to be held in the city's lockups on bail, with helping the violent crime numbers level off as the year has progressed. While homicides were up as much as 66 percent in the spring, they fell to an increase of 17 percent by year's end, statistics show.
"We're constructing a long-term way of addressing crime that didn't exist here. And in some cases, it's a return to what we used to do," he said in an interview last week.
For much of the year, McCarthy concentrated his efforts on two police districts -- Englewood on the South Side and Harrison on the West Side -- flooding their gang-ridden communities with additional manpower. The effort appears to have helped, as homicides dropped dramatically in Englewood. Communities surrounding those districts, however, have seen some of the largest spikes in homicides and shootings in 2012.
McCarthy's strategies have had detractors, however. Some law enforcement sources have said his disbanding of two strike forces that swooped into "hot spots" to reduce violent crime has also contributed to the increase in crime.
McCarthy eliminated those strike forces after he took over the department. Those forces' success relied on swarming streets, intimidating and harassing gang members, and clamping down on any violence in the neighborhoods they targeted.
That strategy was employed by his two predecessors -- both of whom saw decreases in homicides -- who deployed up to 450 officers in mobile units into the most violent sections of the city.
But McCarthy decided last year to move those officers to beat patrols, hoping they would have more meaningful and positive interactions with the community. He's replaced the strike forces with "area teams," smaller than the old units, but deployed by commanders for saturation missions closer to the problem.
"When you have officers who have no connection with the community, they're just stopping everybody rather than the right people," McCarthy said. "All it does is offend a community."
As the year progressed, McCarthy also shook up his command staff, appointing new commanders to police districts that saw sharp increases in gun violence for most of 2012. McCarthy replaced seven command staff members this month, a move that sent the former head of the citywide gang investigations unit to lead the gang-plagued Deering District, which recorded among the highest increases in homicides and shootings out of all 22 police districts.
Although statistics may show that Chicago, with more than 12,200 officers, has the most cops per 100,000 residents among the five largest U.S. cities, some sources within the department maintain that more officers are needed to quell daily gun violence.
By year's end, the city will have hired 263 more officers, city officials said. And the mayor's proposed 2013 budget calls for hiring an additional 500 officers.
According to data the police union says it obtained from the city's police pension board, the number of officers in Chicago has dropped by about 1,000 over the past six years. Experts said other cities have seen similar drops during the recent economic downturn.
Ald. Willie Cochran, 20th, said that in police districts where McCarthy has made changes, violent incidents have declined.
"Good, strong, engaged leadership is very important," said Cochran, who retired as a sergeant from the force after 26 years of service. "It helps the officers. It leads officers in the right direction."
But Cochran also said he thinks the department needs more officers so more police can be put on the streets in neighborhoods that need them the most. Aldermen including Cochran have long called for more officers but failed to come up with ways to pay their salaries.
Illegal drugs, children traumatized by violence, lack of education, unemployment, "lack of character development" and easy access to guns also play a role in rising violence, Cochran said.
"If we are not going to address the traumatic and social and emotional issues, if we are not going to address the economic issues, if we are not going to address the education issues in an honest way, then we are going to continue to have these problems, no matter who the superintendent is, no matter who the mayor is," Cochran said.
Community outreach groups that focus on gang violence said the city's greatest challenge has been trying to prevent retaliatory shootings. McCarthy acknowledged that continued gang skirmishes have played a huge role in driving up the violent crime rate, and they can be difficult to contain.
Community activists from CeaseFire Illinois, an anti-violence group, said many young people who grow up in rough neighborhoods see violence as an inescapable danger, and gangs as a way to protect themselves.
"I had a long conversation with some young guys who told me that retaliation is not only a response, it's an instinct," said Tio Hardiman, who leads the group. "They don't even think about it when one of their friends gets shot. They know they're going to retaliate. It's just part of their natural behavior."
In late June, Emanuel enlisted CeaseFire to work with the police in reducing the gun violence. The unprecedented partnership was made much to the chagrin of many police officers because the group hires convicted felons to mediate gang conflicts.
The city awarded the group a one-year, $1 million contract that was supposed to take effect in July in two police districts. But because of staffing issues and the absence of a Police Department pledge to not use CeaseFire workers as snitches, the agreement didn't take effect until September.
Between September and December, Hardiman said CeaseFire has successfully mediated 20 gang conflicts that involved a total of 116 gang members in the two districts.
Still, some officers who work within those crime-ridden districts -- Grand Crossing on the South Side and Ogden on the West Side -- told the Tribune that it's difficult for them to determine if CeaseFire's role has had any impact. Others say it hasn't helped at all.
McCarthy declined to elaborate on how well the group's partnership with police is going other than to say, "It's a work in progress."
Weather a factor?
The city's homicide rate had its greatest spike from the previous year in roughly the first three months of this year. Some experts and sources believe the unseasonably warm weather in the winter and early spring may have played a role. The theory is that warmer weather draws more people onto the streets, which can increase the potential for personal and gang-related conflicts.
For example, there were 53 homicides in March, compared with 23 in that month a year earlier. March's temperatures averaged 15.6 degrees above normal, and there were seven days when it reached 80 degrees, statistics that the National Weather Service calls "extraordinary."
While acknowledging warm weather can raise the possibility that more potential crime victims will be on the street, McCarthy has repeatedly refused to blame the warm weather for the bloodshed.
"Weather has an impact on crime, especially in the nature of gang-related violence that we have in this city," he said. But "I'm not going to blame the weather because if we do our job better, we can turn that tide, whether it's 85 degrees or 25 degrees. ... I'm not one to make excuses."
Low clearance rates
In addition to the increased violence, Chicago police have also solved the fewest homicides in years. Out of the 500 homicides this year, 126 have been solved as of Friday, a 25 percent rate, according to an internal Police Department document obtained by the Tribune. That number, however, doesn't include killings from previous years that were also solved in 2012.
Some sources within the department said the growing homicide caseload is too much for the current number of detectives. Others said a policy implemented in the last few years of not requiring witnesses to submit to interrogation by detectives has had an impact on the clearance rate. McCarthy has blamed the "no-snitching code" on the streets.
"That comes from not trusting the police," McCarthy said. "You know why they don't trust the police? It's because (we've invaded) communities and put hands on the wall. We're putting systems in place to build that trust."
Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.
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