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article imageAfter bloody year in Chicago, no clear path forward

By Nova SAFO (AFP)     Dec 30, 2016 in World

For a few days in December, no one was shot dead in Chicago.

In most US cities, that would be the norm. In the Windy City, where blood has stained the streets all year, it's an aberration.

Sure enough, after the mid-month lull, the city tumbled back into a grueling and seemingly endless series of killings, with 15 people gunned down in subsequent days.

Chicago, effectively the capital of America's Midwest, is hurtling toward the end of its deadliest year in nearly two decades, with more than 750 murders and 3,500 shootings.

By comparison, America's two biggest cities, Los Angeles and New York, had about 600 murders combined.

The shootings in Chicago, which spiked nearly 50 percent in 2016, were concentrated mostly in historically segregated, economically struggling and predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

As 2017 arrives, there are few clear answers as to how to staunch the bleeding, but city officials are looking at a number of new -- and rehashed -- plans.

- Guns and gangs -

Hand guns are tagged and placed in a bin during a Chicago police gun turn-in event
Hand guns are tagged and placed in a bin during a Chicago police gun turn-in event
Joshua Lott, AFP/File

Chicago police chief Eddie Johnson spent much of 2016 hammering home a key idea: Gangs, guns and an outmatched police force were a toxic brew.

With the support of the city's Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Johnson intends to hire almost 1,000 additional officers over the next two years.

"This will make us a bigger department, a better department, and a more effective department," Johnson said in September when he announced the plan.

The first class of new recruits will graduate in 2017 and join a force under increased scrutiny and pressure.

The department is facing a federal civil rights probe, the outcome of which could change how officers operate, adding a measure of uncertainty in the new year.

The force already has difficulties dealing with a wary African-American population. Some do not cooperate in murder investigations out of fear of retribution or distrust of police.

The department solved only about a third of the murders committed in 2016.

Tensions intensified when a video became public in late 2015 showing a white police officer fatally shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald.

Jason Van Dyke, who was later charged with murder, shot McDonald 16 times, continuing to fire his gun even after the 17-year-old had fallen to the ground.

- Police less proactive -

Chicago police chief Eddie Johnson spent much of 2016 hammering home a key idea: Gangs  guns and an...
Chicago police chief Eddie Johnson spent much of 2016 hammering home a key idea: Gangs, guns and an outmatched police force were a toxic brew
Joshua Lott, AFP/File

The resulting political uproar led Emanuel to fire then-police chief Garry McCarthy, leaving the department's leadership team in disarray.

At about the same time, the department changed its policy for stopping and searching people, requiring officers to fill out more complicated paperwork.

Police activity dropped. Gun violence did not.

"It wasn't until March-April that we started seeing (police) activity increase," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told AFP in November.

But a dozen current Chicago cops admitted to the CBS news program "60 Minutes" that they remain less proactive than in the past.

"Aggressive patrol, when you're out looking for people breaking the law -- that's not happening as much as it was," said Brian Warner, a former officer who counsels current cops.

Whether a police department on the defensive has contributed to the rocketing murder rate is up for debate.

But Chicago police say the true measure is how they deal with the approximately 1,400 people who perpetrate the majority of the gun violence.

Targeting this group — identified through past arrests on firearms charges, and surveillance of real-world and social media associations — is effective, police argue.

A new proposal, to be taken up by the Illinois state legislature in January, would increase prison sentences for repeat gun offenders.

The theory is that if they are behind bars for longer periods, the number of shootings and murders would decline.

"Our biggest problem in Chicago is the gun problem and the culture that allows offenders to commit gun crime after gun crime. So we need better accountability," Johnson said in November.

- A public health issue -

Chicago police solved only about a third of the murders committed in 2016
Chicago police solved only about a third of the murders committed in 2016
SCOTT OLSON, Getty/AFP/File

This is not an idea all Chicagoans support.

"Are people not in prison for long enough already? Have we not used policing as much as is possible?" asked Gary Slutkin, a former World Health Organization epidemiologist and founder of the group Cure Violence, which treats gun violence as a public health issue.

"You have to come at the problem from a different angle," he said.

Slutkin's group turns former gang members into counselors, teaching them to talk to at-risk youths and convince them to avoid resolving disputes with guns.

Chicago's murder spike directly correlated with cuts in state funding for his group, he said. The funding loss affected all non-profit organizations with state contracts.

"At that exact moment, I mean within a week, the shootings and killings turned the corner from going down to going up," Slutkin said.

Government, philanthropic and community leaders are now back at his doorstep, he said, looking to find the money for the group to resume its work.

"This really has to be managed like an epidemic with some urgency," Slutkin said.

On that point, there is agreement with the police chief, who has repeatedly called Chicago's violence a societal issue.

"The violence in Chicago... is not just for police to resolve," Johnson said.

Still, he believes his officers can be more effective.

In late December, Johnson visited the New York Police Department to learn about some of their policing techniques.

"I liked what I saw in New York," Johnson told the Chicago Sun-Times after his visit, adding that he will test out some of the Big Apple's ideas in the coming year.

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