After dramatic spike, Chicago homicides slow down

CHICAGO  — When the city’s gang war intensified last spring, shootings became so frequent they sometimes seemed like a ghastly game of tennis, with each senseless attack followed by a vengeful response.

The furious rate of the killing drew national attention and even invited comparisons between Chicago and some of the world’s war zones.

But a closer look shows something else: The pace of homicides and shootings has slowed considerably as police step up their presence and residents challenge gang members for control of the streets. In at least one of the city’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods, homicides have actually fallen.

“People are taking a stand, that we’re not going to stand for it,” said Lisa Williams, a member of a South Side block-watch group where residents installed their own surveillance cameras.

Back in March, the violence killed 52 people — more than twice as many as died in the previous March. For the first three months of the year, the number of deaths shot up by 60 percent, raising fears that authorities were losing control of some gang-dominated areas.

Police quickly put more officers on patrol and began an intelligence-gathering “audit” that helped them identify rival gangs. Residents took action, too, forming neighborhood watches and staring down passing gang members from outside homes.

Chicago still has a major problem with gangs and gun violence — something President Barack Obama acknowledged about his adopted hometown as recently as last week’s presidential debate.

But the increase in killings has declined somewhat — to 25 percent above last year. And two recent months had fewer slayings than in 2011. Police have also noticed gangs inflicting more non-lethal “leg shots” in apparent recognition that fatal attacks bring more pressure.

The city is trying other measures as well, including demolishing dozens of abandoned buildings believed to be gang hangouts, revoking licenses from liquor stores believed to be magnets for gang activity and signing a controversial $1 million contract with Ceasefire, an anti-violence group that uses convicted felons to mediate gang conflicts.

No one is suggesting that Chicago has found a solution to its gang crisis, and no one rules out another tragic spike in the killings. In the coming days, the city is bound to reach another grim milestone when the number of homicides for 2012 surpasses 433, the total for all of last year.

But even after accounting for this year’s spike in deaths, the number of slayings is still less than half the level of the 1990s, when 900 homicides a year was not uncommon. In more recent years, the total had leveled off around 450.

Still, Chicago has never achieved the same steep decline in homicides as other major cities. So far this year,Chicago has recorded about 100 more homicides than New York and about 200 more than Los Angeles.

City officials blame the bloodshed on changes in gang affiliations, including the splintering of established groups and the emergence of new rivalries. Other observers pointed to the unusually warm weather. It was the warmest March in Chicago in 140 years, and more people were outside mingling in every neighborhood.

Deadly shootouts continued throughout the spring and summer, with children and innocent bystanders sometimes caught in the crossfire. Yet only once more — in August — did homicides see a considerable jump.

Homicides were up by only three in June. Then they fell in July and rose only slightly in September before falling again in October.

Law enforcement experts say the results are evidence that the police strategy of learning about gang territories and rivalries may be paying off. Since conducting the audit of the city’s gangs, authorities have identified dozens of gangs and gang factions they didn’t even know existed early in the year.

At the height of the violence in February and March, there were sometimes “as many as four to six shootingsin four to six hours, all based off of one conflict,” Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said in an interview.

Now, he added, “if gang member X gets shot at this location, we immediately know who is in his gang, what gang his gang is in conflict with, where the gang’s turf is.” Using that information, police quickly deploy their resources to prevent retaliation.

Police also have cracked down on drug dealing and put more uniformed officers on specific beats. Arrests of suspected gang members are up by about 5,500 this year, McCarthy said.

In addition, police have put gangs on notice that killings will trigger a crackdown for the smallest offenses. That message appears to have gotten through.

In Englewood, one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, homicides have fallen more than 40 percent this year. But the number of shootings has stayed flat, a possible indication that gangs are shooting to injure rather than kill.

An expert who has studied and written about Chicago’s violence said it is too early to draw conclusions about a single year’s worth of statistics. But he said the police audit strategy was “absolutely” correct.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Andrew Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale University.

Meanwhile, residents of some of the city’s most violent and gang-plagued neighborhoods are writing down license plates of suspicious vehicles and stepping outside as a message to gang members and drug dealers that they are watching.

Between January and August, 294 block clubs were formed in Chicago to join the 463 that were in place last year, according to police.

“More people are outside on their block talking to each other, and that’s very encouraging to me,” said Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest and activist on the city’s South Side.

Elce Redmond, a community activist on the West Side, has seen residents cleaning up vacant lots, planting community gardens and boarding up abandoned buildings to prevent gang members and drug dealers from getting inside.

Many neighborhoods are still plagued by a “no-snitch” attitude among residents who don’t trust police, but cracks may be showing.

Emma Mitts, a West Side alderman whose ward includes some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, said she is receiving more notes from residents with information about drug dealing and other problems — a signal to her that residents want to clean things up even if they don’t trust police.

“I’m the buffer between them and the police,” she said.

— Associated Press