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Chicago grapples with how to curb gun violence after deadly weekend

July 8, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST
In Chicago, about a dozen people were killed and up to 80 people were in injured in shootings during the city's most violent weekend of the year thus far. The city has made some progress in reducing the number of murders, but it’s still struggling to control gun violence. Gwen Ifill learns more from Paris Schutz of WTTW.
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GWEN IFILL: Chicago is once again in the national spotlight for a level of gun-related violence that has pushed its homicide rate beyond New York and Los Angeles. The city has made some progress in cutting down the number of murders, but dozens of shootings during the long Fourth of July weekend have raised fresh questions about the city’s efforts to stem the bloodshed.

It was the most violent weekend the nation’s third largest city has seen all year. Police say at least 11 people died and 58 people were injured in 50 shootings over roughly three days. News organizations, using different times for the start of the weekend, say the number is significantly higher, at least 14 dead, more than 80 wounded.

ANNETTE HOLT: Supposed to be Independence Day, but it’s not independence for parents who lost their children to gun violence or any other citizen in the city of Chicago who lost their life to gun violence this weekend.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, community leaders and residents joined Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an anti-violence vigil.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, Chicago: A lot of people will say, where were the police, what are the police doing? And that’s a fair question, but not the only question. Where are the parents? Where is the community? Where are the gun laws? Where are the national leaders?

GWEN IFILL: The shooting deaths occurred mostly on the city’s South and West sides, many in minority neighborhoods that rank among the poorest and the most violent in Chicago. Two of those killed were shot by police.

Superintendent of Police Garry McCarthy said hundreds of officers were on the streets, but there are just too many illegal guns.

GARRY MCCARTHY, Superintendent of Police, Chicago: There’s a greater sanction for the gang member to lose that firearm from their gang than there is to go to jail for possession of that gun.

GWEN IFILL: Just last week, Chicago police reported that, compared to the same period last year, gun killings actually dropped by 5 percent. But non-fatal shootings rose.

Paris Schutz of WTTW’s news program “Chicago Tonight” has been covering the response to these shootings. And he joins me now.

Paris, Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent, said today there’s got to — there’s a tipping point has got to come, something like that. Is this it?

PARIS SCHUTZ, WTTW Chicago Tonight: Well, this is pretty typical, unfortunately, of summer in Chicago. As the weather gets warmer, more people are outside. Even in a down homicide year like this year, homicides tend to go up.

And the Fourth of July is typically one of the worst weekends of the year. It was about the same last year. It was about the same the year before, which Superintendent — Superintendent McCarthy says is unacceptable, because they had actually put hundreds of more police officers, most of them on overtime, on the street.

Clearly, it didn’t work. But the tipping point will come, according to Superintendent McCarthy, when state leaders pass tougher gun laws, specifically tougher sentences on those caught with illegal possession of guns. So far, those calls have gone unanswered.

GWEN IFILL: I want to come back to the legislative options in a moment.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Sure.

GWEN IFILL: But, first, I want to ask you about this part about the gangs, the point that he made about gangs, as Superintendent McCarthy said, in which he said the option for retaliation from gangs is a bigger penalty in the minds of many of these shooters than the idea of giving up their guns or the penalty of dealing with law enforcement.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is that where the focus is now, on gangs?

PARIS SCHUTZ: Well, that goes back to the gun legislation piece, because he says that a lot of these offenders are convicted felons. They go to jail, but they don’t serve a lot of time, so they might be back out on streets, in many cases, in six months, and they commit more crimes.

And so he’s saying they get more grief from their fellow gang members about giving up a gun than they do from the city because of those state laws.

GWEN IFILL: We also know that a lot of — there were a lot of police on streets over Fourth of July weekend. Some of this was anticipated.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Right.

GWEN IFILL: And yet these numbers still went up.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is this because there’s not enough police on the streets, because they’re just increasing overtime pay instead of putting more boots on the ground, as it were?

PARIS SCHUTZ: Right.

Well, obviously, the police union has argued for a long time that there aren’t enough police in the force. There are several aldermen in Chicago’s City Council that have called for 500, 1,000 more cops on the street. But because of the fiscal situation in Chicago, the mayor says he just can’t afford a larger police force.

And McCarthy has admitted that they have to make do with what they have. So what’s happened is overtime has skyrocketed. So in 2013, they budgeted for about $25 million in police overtime. It came in at the end of the year at more than four times that. They have continued that strategy into this year.

They acknowledge that that is not a long-term strategy. They say they’re waiting for some of these other policies, like intelligence, like social media efforts, like CompStat, to sort of take hold, so they can sort of wean the police department off of overtime, because, as you know, that leads to questions of morale and fatigue.

GWEN IFILL: If the mayor is right and the superintendent is right, and the problem here is the proliferation of firearms on the streets, where are they coming from?

PARIS SCHUTZ: Well, they come from outside of Chicago, because up until very recently, you couldn’t sell guns and set up shop in Chicago. That has changed.

They come from the south suburbs of Chicago in Cook County. They come from across the border in Indiana, where Chicago leaders and Superintendent McCarthy have said that background checks there don’t tend to be as strict as leaders here want them to be. So — and they will say they have recovered thousands and thousands and thousands of illegal guns.

So conceal-carry used to be illegal in Illinois. You couldn’t have guns in Chicago. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t guns proliferated all around the city. Now the city has to contend with a court ruling that mandates them to allow gun sales in the city, so that’s the next debate the city will have. They actually just passed an ordinance to allow gun shops to operate in a very tiny portion of the city. The constitutionality of that will likely be challenged as well.

GWEN IFILL: How do you keep track of these numbers? We know that there are some discussions about a couple of police-involved shootings. We know there are some questions about what counts as a domestic shooting, what counts as an accidental shooting, what counts as a gang shooting.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Right. Sure.

Well, over the long term, over decades, homicides are down in Chicago, as they are in New York or L.A. They’re less than half of what they were in the ’90s. But year to year, they may be down 10, they may be down 20 from the year before. And by law, the police department and the coroner’s office has to report every homicide, but there are ways that some say they fudge those numbers.

For instance, if there’s a murder that happens or a homicide that happens on an expressway in Chicago, that doesn’t not count towards the city’s homicide rate, because the city says, well, that occurred on state property, so we’re not going to count that. Or if it’s a police officer that shot and killed somebody in self-defense, they don’t count that toward the homicide rate.

Also, they used to say there were X-number of people shot in the city. They have reclassified that. Now they say there are X-number of shooting incidents. So there might be one shooting incident where 10 people were shot. They don’t say 10 people were shot. They say there was one shooting incident.

GWEN IFILL: The mayor, what kind of pressure is on him now to come up with a solution to this?

PARIS SCHUTZ: There’s enormous pressure on the mayor. The mayor faces reelection in about a year.

He has trouble in the African-American community, where a lot of this violence is happening. In his first year in office, homicides spiked to above 500. They sort of went into emergency mode after the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, who was that high school student who had marched in the president’s inaugural just the week prior.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

PARIS SCHUTZ: And that’s when this sort of overtime police strategy went into effect.

You did see homicides dip right away. But they acknowledge that is not a long-term strategy. The pressure is on the mayor every time a weekend like this happens. Now, the mayor has a significant war chest. He has a lot of money. He is very unpopular in the African-American community, but most observers say that wouldn’t be enough to prevent his reelection.

GWEN IFILL: Paris Schutz of our partner WTTW in Chicago, thank you very much.

PARIS SCHUTZ: Thank you, Gwen.