DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The city of Chicago is having a bloody year. Already since January, more than a hundred people have been murdered there. That is more than double the number at this time last year. This spike in violent crime comes as the police department is under federal investigation, coping with low morale and searching for a new police chief. But the department is also trying something new. Here's NPR's David Schaper.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's not "Friday Night Lights." It's Friday night hoops. Young teenage boys on Chicago's west side are running up and down the floor, dribbling, passing, shooting and rebounding. It's an intense game.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, guys, get your man. Get your man.
SCHAPER: The coaches in this newly-formed basketball league in a park district gym near a public housing development are all Chicago police officers. Officer Paris Edwards explains why.
PARIS EDWARDS: We've known for quite a while that the relationship between the police and you has been one that has been strained.
SCHAPER: Edwards acknowledges that many of the black teenagers in this neighborhood feel as though police officers only look at them with suspicion. So the goal is to build a little teamwork and trust.
EDWARDS: If we can get the youth communicating with these officers then we could develop some type of relationship outside of them being stopped and questioned for some type of crime.
SCHAPER: Thirteen-year-old Daronte Peterson is one of the star players.
DARONTE: I'm glad they're doing this because, like, right here where we at now it's a very bad neighborhood. And I'm glad that the police came to do this for us.
SCHAPER: The effort to improve police community relations comes at a tough time for Chicago cops. One of the volunteer coaches is 17-year veteran police officer Ron Rewers.
RON REWERS: You know, you got a lot of eyes on you and a lot of people don't understand the job and they want to jump to conclusions about what we do and what we're supposed to do.
SCHAPER: The scrutiny on Chicago police has intensified since the November release of dash-cam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald a year earlier. The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a civil rights investigation into the patterns and practices of Chicago police. And it's affecting morale.
DEAN ANGELO: Well, morale is poor, to describe it in one word.
SCHAPER: Dean Angelo is president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police.
ANGELO: This is probably the lowest I've seen in my career.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is 15 - citywide - shots fired - Laramie and Congress. Frank said he heard shots - seven shots fired between Congress, Parkway and Van Buren...
SCHAPER: Calls such as this are going out over Chicago police radios with greater frequency as shootings are up significantly so far this year. This particular incident did not result in any injuries, but there have been more than 450 shooting incidents and more than 100 people murdered in Chicago so far this year. That's more than double the number of both at this point last year.
JOHN ESCALANTE: The majority of it is still gang violence.
SCHAPER: Chicago's interim police superintendent, John Escalante.
ESCALANTE: We're seeing a significant percentage of that gang violence being fueled by social media.
SCHAPER: Escalante says social media taunts spark violent responses, which in turn spurs retaliation. But those elements of street violence are not new. What is new is a significant decline in the number of street stops and arrests this year by Chicago police. Street stops are down more than 80 percent compared to the first two months of last year. Arrests are down significantly, too. Escalante acknowledges being concerned about a so-called Laquan McDonald effect leading to less aggressive policing.
ESCALANTE: Every officer I think not just here in Chicago but every police officer around the country does not want to be that next viral video.
SCHAPER: The interim superintendent recently sent a video message to all 12,000 Chicago police officers emphasizing that those doing their jobs properly don't have to worry. Police union president Dean Angelo says officers are still diligently doing their jobs, but...
ANGELO: You know, they are damned when they put people on the wall and search them, you know, if they have weapons on them, and now they're being blamed for not putting people on a wall to search them to see if they have weapons on them.
SCHAPER: Angelo says police officers now are walking what he calls a thin blue line between protecting law-abiding citizens and getting lawbreakers off the streets. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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