Chicago's Murder Rate Begins Year Lower

The city's murder rate has dropped dramatically over the first three months of the year. The police superintendent says it's not a victory but it is progress. After a year in which murders in the country's third largest city topped more than 500, the homicide rate has declined to a level not seen since 1959.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Chicago's murder rate has been grabbing the nation's attention for some time. More than 500 people were killed there last year. One of those murders, a girl shot dead not far from President Obama's Chicago home, an innocent victim of gang violence. Just the week before, she had performed at the president's second inauguration. Even with her death in January though, there are signs that Chicago might be making a turn. Over all, the city's murder rate has dropped dramatically in the first three months of this year, to a level not seen since 1959.

Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In his office, Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy looks at the list on his desk where the number of homicides in specific neighborhoods are highlighted in yellow.

GARRY MCCARTHY: Let's go to Englewood. OK? Seventh District...

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CORLEY: Last month, 16 people were murdered in Chicago compared to 52 in the same month last year. That's a 69 percent reduction in the murder rate for the month. And the city's murder rate has actually been on the decline since last fall, even though several Chicago homicides made headline news. Superintendent McCarthy says the March murder rate is actually the lowest it's been for that month since 1959. That's also true for the homicide rate for the first three months of this year.

MCCARTHY: It is a good start. We have a lot more work to do. We're not declaring victory, but this is certainly progress.

CORLEY: Tio Hardiman agrees. He's the director of Cease Fire, Illinois, the group which works directly with gang members in an effort to prevent the outbreaks of murderous violence that often take place on the city's south and west sides. He calls the March statistics very good news.

TIO HARDIMAN: Normally, during the months of March and April, there's a spike in homicides. So, right now, a 69 percent reduction during the month of March is (unintelligible) is major news. If we can get the numbers down in April that means we've definitely turned a corner to the point, to the point where we can actually have a year where homicides are under 300.

CORLEY: Superintendent McCarthy is not ready to offer any numbers, but he says his goal is zero. He adds what's behind the reduction in violence is a complete re-structuring of the way the city does police work.

People have been outraged about violence in Chicago for a long time. But I can't help but think that this return to community policing, that we've been talking about, where the return to the beat officer and putting the same cops in the same beat every single day - so they become familiar with the individuals in the community, not just the geography of it - is really starting to take root.

McCarthy says ramping up intervention programs aimed at youth, creating a gang reduction strategy and saturating neighborhoods riddled with gang violence with additional police, also helped.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says what's needed even more, now, to keep the homicide numbers on the decline-is tougher gun laws. As a top White House aide, he helped coordinate the passage of the Brady Bill. He and the police superintendent are calling for three year minimum prison terms for people convicted of illegal gun possession. Emanuel says a newspaper story he read convinced him his push to end what he calls a revolving door for people found guilty of gun crimes is the right thing to do.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: There was a gang member saying the obvious: The laws are not a deterrent. And we need the laws to protect people so criminals can not get access to guns. And we do need laws on the books, and strengthened, so if they do commit a crime they serve the time for the time they do. And it acts as a proper deterrent.

CORLEY: Another deterrent may just be some of the residents in tough neighborhoods whom police say have been cooperating more.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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