Experts Stumped By Chicago's Soaring Homicide Rate

The homicide rate in Chicago has soared more than 50 percent in the first few months of 2012 over the same time period last year. The number of non-fatal shootings is up sharply, too. Why? Some say it could be just a statistical blip or due to rising temperatures, as Chicago had an extremely mild winter this year with record-setting warmth in March, the bloodiest month. But others say there is a deeply entrenched culture of violence in some city neighborhoods and within the prolific Chicago street gangs. They worry 2012 could be one of the most violent years in the city since the 1990s.

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Chicago is having a bloody year. Homicides there are up more than 50 percent over this time last year. The city has long struggled with a gang problem, one of the worst in the country. But NPR's David Schaper reports that this early surge in shootings has everyone puzzled, from crime experts to neighborhood activists.

DR. LARRY MITCHELL: This is where all the action starts. Right about here.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Dr. Larry Mitchell is walking through the clicking automatic sliding entry door into the emergency room at Rosewood Community Hospital on Chicago's far south side on what could be a very busy Friday night.

MITCHELL: I'm gearing up for the worst. On Fridays, I always gear up for the worst.

SCHAPER: And if it's a warm night...

MITCHELL: For us, when the weather's warm, the first thing we think, we're going to get some gunshots in here because we know people are out in the street. We know that the chance of running into somebody is greater and then we have to prepare ourselves for that.

SCHAPER: This hospital is not a level one trauma center, so ambulances carrying the most serious gunshot victims will go elsewhere. But as the only hospital in one of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods, many residents will bring a friend or relative who's been shot here. So Mitchell and his staff are always listening.

MITCHELL: When we hear the screeching sound from a car, we come running with a cart, a wheelchair 'cause we know then we probably got somebody who's shot.

SCHAPER: On one recent night, Mitchell says half a dozen shooting victims came through his E.R. door and one died while he was working to save him. Nights like that are increasingly common this year, as the number of homicides in Chicago is up 54 percent over last year. And the number of non-fatal shootings is up 20 percent from a year ago.

Like much of the Upper Midwest, Chicago had an unseasonably warm winter, especially March, which turned out to be the bloodiest month statistically. Some experts who track violent crime theorize that warmer weather could cause violent crime to spike.

Jens Ludwig heads the University of Chicago's crime lab and says higher temperatures do bring more people outdoors.

DR. JENS LUDWIG: And we know that when there are more people out and about there are just more opportunities for crime. And so, I think the thing that everybody is talking about - mild, wet winter weather - might actually be a contributing factor to this thing that we're seeing.

SCHAPER: But Chicago's top cop isn't buying it.

GARY MCCARTHY: I'm not willing to chalk it up to the weather, the tides, the moons, voodoo - you name it.

SCHAPER: Police superintendent Gary McCarthy says much of Chicago's violence is concentrated in a few neighborhoods and rooted in the city's deeply-entrenched gang culture.

MCCARTHY: Chicago has, if not the worst, one of the worst gang violence issues in the country.

SCHAPER: And McCarthy says the violence this year isn't just one established gang against another.

MCCARTHY: These young kids are breaking off from the gangs, in essence, creating twice as many gangs in the city, which in essence creates twice as many gang conflicts. With the proliferation of firearms results in people getting shot and killed.

SCHAPER: McCarthy is the former police chief of Newark and a former top police official in New York City. He says he is just now beginning to implement in Chicago new strategies to fight violent gang crimes, modeled after programs that worked for him back East. Using gang intelligence and more beat cops, McCarthy says Chicago police are now responding to one shooting by anticipating where and when the retaliatory shooting will be.

And the police are arresting gang members for smaller crimes and holding the entire gang accountable for the few that shoot. In a way, they're trying to get the gangs to police themselves. McCarthy says in the two police districts where the new strategy is in place, shootings and homicides are down. But several months after McCarthy disbanded a citywide gang strike force, the homicide rate has soared.

Chicago's police union complains that because of a budget crisis, the city is not hiring enough officers. And Jens Ludwig says not only is the city facing a huge budget shortfall, but so too are the city's schools and state government. Meaning programs aimed at reducing crime have been cut to the bone.

LUDWIG: You would have to think that government sucks even more than it really does, to think that you could cut fully a quarter out of the government budget and not have anything bad happen.

SCHAPER: Now, Ludwig and others say it could just be a statistical blip, as there are always periodic spikes in gang violence. And even though it's been a bloody year, Chicago's murder rate is still half of what it was 20 years ago. And all other kinds of crimes are down 10 percent so far this year.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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