Crimes scenes such as this in the Englewood section are making 2016 a year of record violence in Chicago.
Crimes scenes such as this in the Englewood section are making 2016 a year of record violence in Chicago. | wikipedia, the Commons

Chicago struggles with record violent crime

Chicago capped its most violent summer in two decades with a Labor Day weekend crime during which 65 people were shot by guns – 13 fatally – including a pregnant woman and a retired minister.

The 13 murders recorded so far in September include nine homicides that occurred during a 14-hour span on Monday. That follows a deadly August, which saw 90 people die from gunfire. 

Through Monday, 512 homicides have been recorded in the city this year, putting it on pace to become the deadliest year in the city's history, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis. That represents a 72-percent increase from 2015, when 491 murders occurred during the entire year.

Law enforcement experts attribute the murder spike to gang violence and retaliation, which has beset the city for decades. But Chicago's homicide numbers far outpace counterpart cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where 227 people have been murdered through the end of August, on track for a slower pace over last year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also attributed the violence to the poor relationship between the community and police. In August he moved to set up a new public safety watchdog to monitor police practices and a new police oversight board, called COPA (Civilian Office of Police Accountability). He is expected to speak in further detail about his plans for improving the climate there later this month.

The crime wave is tarnishing Chicago's image, even as police note that much of the city is relatively safe because the gang violence is confined to a few areas of the city. The ongoing problem drew national interest once again after Nykea Aldridge, a 32-year-old mother of four who was the second cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, was gunned down last week while pushing her baby carriage on a city street. Her funeral was held Saturday.

Two men have been arrested in her case, charged with first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder. Both had been released on parole after serving prior prison sentences for gun crimes. 

Her death amid the ongoing inner-city violence drew rebukes from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who makes his headquarters in Chicago. "We are perplexed by the sheer number of shootings and killings – 2,800 shot, another 500 killed," Jackson said Saturday as Aldridge's family mourned her death. "The toxic formula of drugs in, guns in, jobs out."

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson spoke out last week amid August's record spree of violence – the deadliest month in two decades. He called on tougher sentencing and gun laws like others areas around the country.

“This violence isn’t because of the police,” Johnson told public television's WTTV last week. “It’s a result of a lot of social ills. Unfortunately, social ills of society are dumped at the doorstep of the police department, and they’re not able to handle all of that. So we’re taking a holistic look at how to address all of that.”

The Labor Day carnage was particularly unnerving as it came in the wake of a special, two-pronged police effort to address street crime. A Labor Day sweep, targeted at drugs and guns, garnered 76 arrests. Of those, 56 were convicted felons, the Chicago Tribune said.

Meanwhile, police also worked last week to improve community relations. They handed out new school backpacks to students in crime-ridden neighborhoods and arranged for barbers to offer free back-to-school haircuts to youth at the city's 6th District police station.

Despite the crime wave, Diane Latiker, who lives in the 5th district's Roseland community, said she was buoyed to see many in her community – from those in churches and in other organizations – step up this past weekend to let residents know someone cared.

She said the spirit among families there remains strong amid the street violence, even though some view it as hopeless.

"It's all we hear about day in and day out here, how the crime is touching the city and the loss of lives. But I also know that there is an element of hope in the fact that there are people here doing things to keep crime down," Latiker, who runs the youth nonprofit organization, Kids Off the Block, told the American Media Institute.

She hopes others will see the other side of the narrative – that there is plenty of good in tough communities.

"I am seeing people come out of their houses and people reaching out and showing their concern for others because it's spiraling out of control," she said. "Some people are afraid and rightfully so. But this past weekend, I saw people come out of their homes here in droves to combat this negativity and I was very impressed seeing them step up to do what they could do."

Latiker said police in her area of the city are trying to help. But like the superintendent, she said it takes everyone – "literally all of us" – coming together along with what she hopes will be a heightened national conversation about the legislation and resources needed to help citizens in troubled communities around the country fight back and feel safer. Goodwill, she said, isn't enough.

Latiker also fears for youth in Chicago, who she sees growing up amid an ongoing culture of violence, a normal occurrence for many. "They know that they don't have to be doing anything wrong to be gunned down," she told AMI. "They don't have to be in a gang or hanging out on the corner, doing negative things and they still can be killed."

She added, "When manufacturing left, when jobs left, when people couldn't survive, then the criminal element stepped up because of survival. I would like a larger conversation and more resources placed [in] our community so the residents can not only access them, but be a part of them and so they can have hope again."