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2 Chicago neighborhoods exemplify fluid nature of violence

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 9:57 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Whenever a young parishioner asks for a ride home from his Back of the Yards church or evening basketball practice, the Rev. David Kelly obliges without question. He knows the youth is just looking for safe passage from one gang territory to another in what has become an increasingly violent neighborhood this year.

But just 10 miles south in Englewood, a neighborhood notorious for violence, resident and community activist Cynthia Lomax has noticed quieter weekends and fewer sidewalk memorials to murder victims. She’s spotted more uniformed and plainclothes police officers patrolling the streets, their large, boxy vehicles an easy tell.

As a particularly bloody year for Chicago draws to a close, an added police presence in Englewood has contributed to a 16 percent reduction in homicides. But next door in Back of the Yards, gang conflicts and shootings are on the rise.

The two neighborhoods are examples of the perplexing and fluid nature of violence in Chicago and how successes in one neighborhood can still leave police and residents scrambling to tamp down rising violence in another.

With 12 days left in the year, 490 homicides have been recorded across Chicago as of Wednesday, the most since 513 homicides in 2008. The city also has had just over 2,400 reported shootings, 11 percent more than by this time in 2011, police statistics show.

Chicago’s mounting homicide toll has plagued the department all year, since a particularly violent winter drew negative attention to a city already under a national spotlight for the NATO summit. While the force was praised for how it handled the summit-related protests, it faced criticism for the rising violence as well as how it deployed resources, particularly its use of police during a series of assaults in the city’s Gold Coast.

Despite the spike in homicides, police and city officials emphasize that overall crime is down across the city. They have touted successes in neighborhoods such as Englewood and West Garfield Park and celebrated a reported 8.5 percent drop throughout the city in robberies, assaults, batteries, thefts and other crimes.

And while homicides soared in the first quarter of this year, police say efforts they’ve made slowed increases since.

“Those things we were doing to reduce crime are obviously working,” Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a press conference earlier this week after a class of new police officers graduated from the academy. “The things that we implemented in March and April to reduce violence are also working.

“But it’s not an exact science,” he said. “We’re not going to win every single day.”

But Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago, said police have limitations in trying to reduce the homicide rate of any city, more so than in their attempts to curb other crimes.

“The superintendent’s trying to put the right frame on the data and wanting people to be rational and reasonable about statistics. And he’s showcasing the successes, which people are not going to pay as much attention to if we hit the 500 (homicide) mark,” Lurigio said.

The department’s approach to stamping out crime has mainly focused on flooding troubled neighborhoods. When homicides rose heavily in 2011 in the Englewood Police District — which comprises the Englewood and South Englewood neighborhoods — police in January vowed to increase their presence there to drive down violent crime.

They mapped out “conflict zones” and put more uniformed officers on the street, along with cops from specialized units with the assistance of federal agencies. The result, police said, was a dramatic 29 percent decline in homicides and a 5 percent drop in shootings in the Englewood district this year.

But while police officials have trumpeted their victory there, communities on the district’s borders have suffered, statistics show.

As of Dec. 9, the Gresham Police District to the south leads the city with 43 homicides, a 19 percent jump from last year. To the west and east of Englewood, homicides in those districts increased 44 percent and 24 percent, respectively. And in the Deering Police District, which includes the Back of the Yards and Fuller Park neighborhoods, homicides rose 46 percent by Dec. 9 to 41 killings, up from 28 in 2011, statistics show.

Many officers within the department have argued that the elimination of two “strike forces” largely responsible for tamping down shootings and homicides in past years hurt the department’s ability to fight violence. After McCarthy became superintendent, those strike force officers, who flooded a different gang-conflict area each day, were moved to beat patrols with the intention that they would have more positive interaction with the community.

Many officers have expressed concern over the strategy, saying beat cops in high-crime areas tend to be too busy responding to radio calls, allowing little time for face time with residents.

Police officers have also blamed the increased violence on the splintering of large street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples factions that run small-scale drug markets. In response, the department has made use of “gang audits” — in which specialized units share gang intelligence with patrol officers — to better prepare themselves for retaliatory violence.

The unseasonably warm weather, particularly early this year, was blamed by some officers. Others say staffing shortages contributed to the rise in violence.

“You don’t have the resources out there to take that comfort zone away from (gang members),” said Dominic Rizzi, a police chief in Washington state who retired in June as a lieutenant for the Deering District. “It hasn’t been a secret that manpower is down. It sends the message (to criminals) that no one there is out to stop us.”

In Englewood, the reduction in homicides this year hasn’t changed some residents’ worries about their safety.

“It doesn’t feel like we are getting to the heart of the problem,” said Debra Thompson, 57, a longtime resident. “We are victims of our neighborhood. We can’t really go out. We’re still alarmed. You can’t walk around in broad daylight.”

And In Back of the Yards, the increase in violence this year has taken an immediate toll, residents said. Children stay in a constant state of alert, carefully watching cars as they drive by and looking around for possible gunmen, said Kelly, the head of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.

“They are suffering from trauma and havoc,” he said. “A kid called me and told me he had just been shot at. He said, ‘Father, I feel blessed because I didn’t get hit.’ ”

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