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There's an old code in the criminal world: Don't snitch. That's especially true in the culture of street gangs. And in Chicago, where homicides and shootings are significantly up this year, that old code is leaving a rising number of those violent crimes unsolved. It has police there very worried. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

SGT. CESAR GUZMAN: Right now, we're on the corner of Independence Boulevard and Lexington...

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Chicago Police Sgt. Cesar Guzman stands on a street corner on Chicago's impoverished West Side, describing a recent shooting.

GUZMAN: ...in the middle of the summertime. It was a real hot, summer night; I would say about 8 o'clock at night...

SCHAPER: Guzman says a lot of people were out. There were cars parked all along the boulevard, with windows down and music blaring. Some kids were playing on a grassy median, and a few adults were drinking and smoking; when two men got into a heated argument.

GUZMAN: And then after the verbal altercation, the offender drew a weapon and shot at the victim, striking the victim multiple times. And I believe it was twice in the face.

SCHAPER: The victim was 23-year-old Dominique Green, known in the neighborhood as "Snoopy." Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital, but Green was pronounced dead on arrival. Detective Guzman says locating eyewitnesses is critical to solving such a crime, so he and other detectives immediately started canvassing the neighborhood.

GUZMAN: And what was surprising is, no matter how many times - I mean, we're looking; we're stopping people, to see if they heard or saw anything. And most people would say no, they didn't see anything; they didn't hear anything. And they continue to walk by. And that's one of the frustrations that we have to deal with, when we come to areas like this - is that it's not easy to find witnesses.

SCHAPER: Guzman says investigators believe the shooting was gang-related, and he knows that many people are just too afraid of gang retaliation to talk to police. But he and other police officials also blame a longstanding attitude that police say is becoming more widespread in many communities - that you just don't snitch to police. Detective Guzman says even wounded shooting victims often won't cooperate.

GUZMAN: They know who shot them, and there's a very strong possibility that they're going to take matters into their own hand. And then they're going to - you know, then we're going to have another shooting later on, and that's probably the retaliation.

SCHAPER: In fact, police officials say a spike in retaliatory shootings is part of what's causing the increase in Chicago's homicide rate, so far this year. And as the number of shootings goes up, police are making fewer arrests for those violent crimes. Chicago Police Department statistics show that the clearance rate for last year's 433 homicides in the city, was just 30 percent. In other words, seven out of 10 times, murderers in Chicago get away with the crime. Twenty years ago, the clearance rate in Chicago was 70 percent.

This year, through the end of September, there have been about 1,500 nonfatal shootings in Chicago. And in almost 80 percent in those cases, detectives now have no workable leads. Here's Chicago's chief of detectives, Thomas Byrne.

CHIEF THOMAS BYRNE: And most of those are going to be from lack of cooperation, quite frankly. So a detective arrives to a scene; witnesses aren't cooperating, the victim's not cooperating. It makes it very difficult to piece the puzzle together, on what happened.

SCHAPER: But a lack of community cooperation is unlikely to be the only reason for the department's low clearance rate. The union for Chicago police officers suggests another factor may be that there are fewer detectives now, to investigate shootings. Police officials refuse to disclose specifics on manpower in the detective ranks, but Chief Byrne acknowledges it is a fair question.

BYRNE: Everybody wants more people. I mean, I'm not going to lie. Everybody would like more people but, you know, you have to operate within the parameters that are set.

SCHAPER: Those parameters, Byrne says, include financial constraints. But he says recent promotions are helping ease the caseload, for detectives in violent crimes, and new hiring should lead to more police officer promotions into the detective ranks soon. And he adds that it really doesn't matter how many detectives are working a case, if no one will talk.

But those who live in Chicago's neighborhoods where gangs operate, see things quite differently. Stanley Jackson fixes his car on the street, just 100 feet or so away from the spot where Dominique Green was shot dead. The 43-year-old security officer says he wasn't out that night, but he's heard about what happened; and he understands why those who may have witnessed the shooting won't share that information with the police.

STANLEY JACKSON: Even if you did see something, you don't know nothing. Basically, you're - or a fear of either they'll shoot your kids, or they'll try to get you; or if they can't get you, they'll get somebody in your family. It's that old code of - silent thing, you know.

SCHAPER: And others in this community, question the police department's efforts to solve shootings. Twenty-one-year-old Joenathan Woods, who works on an automotive assembly line, doubts that police try their best if a crime appears to be gang-on-gang and happens in poor, African-American neighborhoods like this one.

JOENATHAN WOODS: The only thing I can really think of, that would help the community, really, is if the police are more hands-on, on serving and protecting - you know what I'm saying? - if they walk the streets, and get to know the people.

SCHAPER: Criminologist Art Lurigio, at Loyola University in Chicago, agrees, and says police need to do a better job earning the community's trust.

ART LURIGIO: The police are responsible for creating an atmosphere, in a community, that encourages residents to come forward and cooperate with them, in solving crimes.

SCHAPER: Lurigio says the city's community-policing strategy had been making progress in reducing the number of shootings, since its implementation in the mid-'90s. But he says it appears the department has de-emphasized it, in recent years. Without a better effort, Lurigio says, witnesses won't come forward. And he says without witnesses identifying the shooters, shootings are extremely difficult to solve. And that's something, he says, that the shooters know all too well.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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