Homicides Hit Bloody Milestone in Chicago

by | September 7, 2016

By Jeremy Gorner and Peter Nickeas

With shootings spiking on Labor Day, Chicago officially surpassed the homicide toll for all of last year, marking another alarming milestone for a city that has seen violence at its worst in two decades with still almost four months to go this year.

Through 5 a.m. Tuesday, the city recorded 488 homicides, marking a 47 percent increase from 331 for the same year-earlier period and exceeding the 481 total for all of 2015, according to official Chicago Police Department statistics.

The number of shooting victims has topped 2,930, approaching the 2,988 total for all of last year, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis.

The Labor Day weekend came to a particularly violent end with 31 shot, nine fatally, between 6 a.m. Monday and 3 a.m. Tuesday, by the Tribune's count. Overall, 65 people were shot over the long weekend, 13 fatally.

The Police Department's statistics do not include killings on area expressways, police-involved shootings, other justifiable homicides or death investigations that could later be reclassified as homicides. The Tribune's own database, which primarily uses data from the Cook County medical examiner's office, does include those, putting the total number of killings at 512 as of early Tuesday.

The surge in violence has come at a time of upheaval for the Police Department amid a monthslong investigation by the U.S. Justice Department in the fallout over the videotaped fatal shooting of black teen Laquan McDonald by an officer.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Tuesday his department is doing all it can to combat violence rooted in poverty and hopelessness.

"It's not a police issue, it's a society issue," Johnson told reporters outside police headquarters. "Impoverished neighborhoods, people without hope do these kinds of things. You show me a man that doesn't have hope, I'll show you one that's willing to pick up a gun and do anything with it. Those are the issues that's driving this violence."

Johnson pointed to the department's seizures of more than 6,000 illegal guns so far in 2016 as evidence that officers are out on the streets working hard. But he acknowledged that the fallout from the McDonald shooting video and the amplified distrust between the police and the African-American community haven't made it easy on officers.

"Of course, they're human, they're people," Johnson said. "So, of course, nobody wants to be the next viral video. These officers have families to take care of too."

Month after month this year, homicides in Chicago have soared to levels not seen since the 1990s. The 92 homicides in August alone marked the most the city had seen for a single month since July 1993.

If this pace continues for the rest of the year, homicides are threatening to hit 700 by year's end. The last year with comparable numbers through the first eight months _ 1998 _ ended with 704 homicides.

The city's violence continues to far outpace both New York and Los Angeles, whose populations far exceed Chicago.

According to official statistics through late August, the most recent that are publicly available, New York and Los Angeles had a combined 409 homicides, well below Chicago's total at that point.

The Labor Day weekend began relatively quietly but saw its worst violence on Monday.

Among those shot was Crystal Myer, who was nine months' pregnant and was wounded in the abdomen at about 3:30 p.m. Monday in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. A killing had taken place on the same block less than a day earlier. No information on the baby was available. A man she was standing near was also shot and left in critical condition.

Early Monday, a retired Baptist pastor from East Chicago was shot to death on the back patio of the Senior Suites of Rainbow Beach, a senior housing complex near 77th Street and Exchange Avenue. The victim, Allen Smith, 80, often discussed _ and sometimes argued _ the finer points of Scripture with a fellow resident starting his own ministry. During their late-night talk Monday, the other resident pulled a gun, shot Smith and tried to flee in his motorized wheelchair, according to police and other residents. No charges had been filed by Monday evening, but a surveillance camera captured the shooting, police said.

Police officials have blamed much of Chicago's violence on the flow of illegal firearms through dangerous neighborhoods and an intractable gang problem.

The gangs, once highly structured and hierarchal, have fractured into small factions. With social media, petty disagreements and personal disputes can quickly turn violent, crime experts have said.

"Previously, if there were gang disputes ... we had more time to intervene and to stop these shootings because they would unfold over the course of days and weeks," said Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. "Now they're unfolding over the course of minutes."

Another factor contributing to the violence could be a drop in morale among Chicago police officers because of heightened scrutiny in the fallout over the McDonald shooting as well as a new state law requiring detailed reports be filled out for every street stop because of concerns over racial profiling. In interviews, officers told the Tribune earlier this year that they had taken a more cautious approach to their work, concerned they could end up in a viral internet video, sued or fired.

So far this year, the bulk of the violence has been concentrated in neighborhoods on the South and West sides that have been plagued by decades of poverty, entrenched segregation, rampant narcotics sales and other social ills.

Through the first eight months of this year, all but one of the city's 22 police districts recorded increases, often sizable ones, in shooting incidents over the year earlier, according to Police Department data. Homicides rose in all but six of the districts.

The worst hit has been the Harrison District on the West Side, ranking No. 1 in both homicides and shooting incidents. But the Austin District, also on the West Side, has seen even larger percentage increases, more than doubling the number of its homicides and shooting incidents over the year-earlier period.

On the South Side, homicides have more than doubled in the Englewood District. The violence has also spiked in particular in the Chicago Lawn, Deering, Gresham and Grand Crossing districts on the South Side.

(Staff writers Alexandra Chachkevitch and Elvia Malagon contributed to this report.)

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