An evidence marker is placed next to a gun at a shooting in East Garfield Park on March 16, 2016. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)
Jeremy GornerContact Reporter
As the first quarter of 2016 nears an end, violence in Chicago has reached levels unseen in years, putting the city on course to top 500 homicides for only the second time since 2008.
As of 6 a.m. Wednesday, homicides totaled 135, a 71 percent jump over the 79 killings in the same year-earlier period, official Police Department statistics show. That represented the worst first quarter of a year since 136 homicides in 1999, according to the data.
Shootings have jumped by comparable numbers as well. As of Wednesday, at least 727 people had been shot in Chicago so far this year, a 73 percent rise from 422 a year earlier, according to a Tribune analysis of department data.
Worse yet, that jump follows two consecutive years in which shootings rose by double digits, the analysis found. Homicides also rose by about 12.5 percent last year over 2014.
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If there was any hopeful sign in the numbers, it would be that for most of March, homicides rose citywide by a more modest 25 percent from the same year-earlier period, the department said.
Crime experts caution about making year-to-year comparisons, but Arthur Lurigio, a professor of criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, called the escalating violence at the start of the year "alarming."
"We have to go back decades to find jumps of this magnitude in year-to-year comparisons," he said. "We're on our way to 500 homicides again. We're going backward."
After an unrelated news conference Wednesday, new interim police Superintendent Eddie Johnson found an optimistic note in the recent slowing of the percentage increase in homicides.
"If we can build on that momentum, we'll be doing good," he said.
Johnson said gang conflicts and the proliferation of guns continue to fuel the violence. The department also disclosed that more than half of the homicide victims so far this year had been targeted as likely gun violence victims or offenders in a novel program in which commanders try to persuade them to give up the gang life.
"We know who is committing these crimes. It's a small segment of the population," Johnson told the Tribune. "We have those individuals targeted. One of the things we have to do is ensure we hold those individuals accountable when they commit these crimes."
The surge in violence comes at a tumultuous time for the Police Department. On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel passed over the three finalists his hand-picked Police Board had chosen for police superintendent and instead plucked Johnson from the command staff for the post.
Emanuel: New top cop Johnson will 'restore trust and restore pride' in CPD
In December, Emanuel had fired Garry McCarthy after 4 1/2 years in the job amid the public furor after the court-ordered release of a dashboard camera video showing a white Chicago police officer shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing the black teen as he walked away from police with a knife in his hand.
In February, the Tribune reported a precipitous drop in morale among Chicago police, citing interviews with numerous officers. They told the newspaper the McDonald shooting had made them less aggressive on the street out of fear that doing even basic police work would get them into trouble. Criminals were taking advantage of their passive approach, they said.
The Police Department on Jan. 1 also began requiring that cops fill out detailed reports every time they make a street stop as part of a new state law and a landmark agreement worked out with the American Civil Liberties Union. The change — the result of concerns over racial profiling — has not only kept officers busy with paperwork longer than before, officers said, but also increased their anxiety about being second-guessed on whom they've stopped.
The result was that officers made 6,818 arrests in January, a 32 percent drop from nearly 10,000 arrests a year earlier. The number of street stops also has plummeted, with 9,044 investigatory stop reports issued in January, a fraction of the 61,330 "contact cards" that police issued during January 2015.
While crime experts and the ACLU have contended that no empirical evidence exists that would suggest the low police activity has led to a rise in violence, Loyola's Lurigio expressed concern about officers lying down on the job.
"We'd be remiss in thinking that the apparent lack of police activity has nothing to do with it," he said. "That would be foolish to think that. How much? We don't know."
In the brief interview Wednesday, Johnson said that he didn't think morale was so bad but that officers had been confused by the rollout of the new street stop reports. But that has improved with training, he said.
Police mood appears to hit a low amid fallout from Laquan McDonald video
"We're seeing a steady uptick in the investigatory stops, so we're slowly but surely getting back," the interim superintendent said. "I don't think we'll ever hit the numbers we had before. But that's the whole point of it. We just have to make sure we stop the right people at the right times for the right reasons."
It's important to keep in mind that the violence is far reduced from the early 1990s when homicides sometimes exceeded 900 in a year. But what continues to be troubling is that in recent years, Chicago's violence has outpaced New York and Los Angeles even though both are more populous. That gulf appears to have only worsened so far this year.
According to the most recent numbers available, 60 people had been slain in New York through March 20, down from 75 in the year-earlier period, while Los Angeles recorded 67 homicides through March 26, up from 54 last year, the departments said.
Through those same time periods, shooting victims had totaled 202 in New York and 260 in Los Angeles, far below Chicago levels.
While police are loathe to mention weather as a factor, temperatures in Chicago over the first three months have been milder and snowfall below normal, said Ricky Castro, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
As they have traditionally, neighborhoods affected the most by the rise in violence are on Chicago's South and West sides, which for decades have been stricken by high concentrations of poverty, lack of investment from the city, illegal drug activity and an intractable gang problem.
The hardest hit of the Police Department's 22 districts has been the West Side's Harrison District, which includes the West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park and Humboldt Park community areas. Through Sunday, 21 people had been killed, more than triple from six a year earlier, statistics show. Shooting incidents have risen by similar numbers, to 111 from 40.
16 shot, 3 fatally, in shootings across the city
The neighboring Austin District on the city's Far West Side recorded 10 homicides, up from only three a year earlier, according to the department. Shooting incidents more than doubled to 47 from 21.
Both districts have been plagued for years by violence caused in large part by disputes over narcotics sales. The Eisenhower Expressway — which cuts through the middle of the two districts — has for years been dubbed by law enforcement as "the heroin highway" because of drug users who travel from the suburbs for their fix.
On the South Side, three districts — Englewood, Deering and Chicago Lawn — shared the dubious mark of recording the most homicides through Sunday — 12 each. A year earlier, Englewood and Deering had just five slayings each, while Chicago Lawn had seven.
On Tuesday night, about 20 residents joined several police officers at 71st Street and Jeffery Boulevard in the South Side's South Shore community in a show of solidarity in the fight against crime. The area isn't as prone to gun violence as it once was, but it still has its flare-ups.
The event drew mostly residents who appeared to be in their 40s, 50s or 60s, not the at-risk youths most affected by the violence.
"It's hard trying to pull a young person out of that kind of environment where this is what they have eaten, slept and drank all their lives," said Sgt. Maudessie Jointer, who helped oversee the gathering. "You will get a few, but we don't get them in the volume that we need."
Over on the West Side, the Rev. Ira Acree, an outspoken pastor in the Austin community, talked about fragmented families, a poor school system and a proliferation of guns as being among the causes of the violence.
"It's a crisis here in Chicago," he said about the disturbing level of violence so early in the year. "Unless something radical transpires in our city, there's going to be a bloodbath this summer."
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