As grim as it is, Chicago's murder rate was almost double in the early 1990s — averaging around 900 — before violent crime began dropping in cities across America. This year's increase, though, is a sharp contrast to New York, where homicides fell 21 percent from 2011, as of early December.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says while murders and shootings are up, overall crime citywide is down about 9 percent. He says crime-fighting strategies against gangs — some just put into place this year — are working, but they take time.
"The city didn't get in this shape overnight," he says. "I think that we're doing ourselves a disservice by advertising a Vietnam-type body count. I've got to tell you when I speak to people ... they generally say, 'You know what? We don't even hear that anymore. It's white noise.'... The fascination unfortunately seems to be in the media and it's become a national obsession."
After the 500th homicide was reported, McCarthy released a statement saying the pace of violent crime had slowed since early 2012. Murders skyrocketed 66 percent in the first quarter of the year over the same period in 2011; by the fourth quarter, the increase had dropped to 15 percent, he said. For shootings, it was a 40 percent hike in the first quarter and 11 percent in the last quarter compared with 2011. The superintendent called the numbers "great progress."
Up to 80 percent of Chicago's murders and shootings are gang-related, according to police. By one estimate, the city has almost 70,000 gang members. A police audit last spring identified 59 gangs and 625 factions; most are on the South and West sides.
Gangs in Chicago have a long, dangerous history, some operating with the sophistication and hierarchy of corporations. In the 1980s, the leaders of the El Rukns were convicted of conspiring in a terrorism-for-hire scheme designed to collect millions from the Libyan government. Before the feds took down the leadership of the Gangster Disciples in the 1990s, the group had its own clothing line and political arm.
Nowadays, gangs are less structured and disputes more personal, says Eric Carter, commander of the Gresham district, home to 11 factions of the Gangster Disciples. "It's strictly who can help me make money," he says. "Lines have become blurred and alliances have become very fragile."
Carter says a gang narcotics dispute that started about six years ago is at the root of a lot of violence in his district.
Another change among gangs is the widespread use of YouTube, Facebook and other social media to taunt one another and spread incendiary messages. "One insult thrown on Facebook and Twitter becomes the next potential for a shooting incident on the street," Carter says.
McCarthy, who has consulted with criminologists, has implemented several plans, including an audit that identifies every gang member and establishing a long-term police presence in heavy drug-dealing areas, aimed at drying up business.
In two districts, police also have partnered controversially with CeaseFire Illinois, an anti-violence group that has hired convicted felons, including former gang members, to mediate street conflicts. McCarthy, who has expressed reservations about the organization, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"It's a work in progress," he says. "It hasn't shown a lot of success yet."
AMONG THE DEAD: An 18-year-old walking on a sidewalk. A 36-year-old at a backyard party. A 28-year-old in a car two blocks from the police station. A 40-year-old convenience store clerk, on the job just two months.
In a storefront on 79th, Curtis Toler has a map of the street and surrounding area with 10 stick pins. Each represents a homicide in 2012.
Toler, a former gang member, spent much of his life causing chaos. Now, he's preaching calm. As a supervisor at CeaseFire, his job is to ease tensions and defuse disputes before they explode.