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Chicago Battles Its Image As Murder Capital Of The Nation


Chicago police say they've made arrests in connection with shootings there last weekend. It was an unusually violent couple of days, with 66 people shot and 12 killed. Cities and towns in the U.S. fear having to wear the distressing mantle of murder capital, a title that's often based on perception as much as actual numbers. And it is an image that Chicago constantly battles. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Across the country this week, people participated in National Night Out, the annual meetup between police and residents designed to build better relationships in an effort to fight crime. At a park in West Englewood on Chicago's South Side...


CORLEY: ...A DJ was spinning records in the field house. A magician entertained kids. And the police chatted with residents. Outside, 23-year-old Kenny Doss, a college student who grew up just a few blocks from the park, gave the police community get-together a thumbs-up.

KENNY DOSS: Because I believe it'll keep down a lot of violence when we know each other by first and last name.

CORLEY: Last weekend, several people were shot in the area - along with others on the city's West Side - in one of the most violent weekends in recent history. Doss says the grim news continued to fuel a perception that South Side Englewood is full of thugs and gangsters.

DOSS: A lot of times people are really fighting for survival. We don't have the proper resources we need. I know it's not an excuse for the killing and the violence is going on. But the community's just being flooded with guns and drugs. So it's one of them things where, by any means, they're numb to the killing.

CORLEY: Stories abound about Chicago's grim gun violence. In tweets and interviews, President Trump often points to the violence of the adopted hometown of his predecessor Barack Obama.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And then you look at Chicago. What's going on in Chicago? It's horrible carnage. This is - Afghanistan is not like what's happening in Chicago.

CORLEY: And entertainers, like Chicagoan Kanye West, rap about it.


KANYE WEST: (Rapping) There's a war going on outside we ain't safe from. I feel the pain in my city where ever I go.

CORLEY: Chicago saw a huge jump in murders in 2016 to more than 750. Official numbers from the FBI for 2017 aren't in yet. But Kim Smith, who researches crime at the University of Chicago, says what's important is the actual murder rate, which takes population into account. By that measure, cities like Detroit and Memphis have fewer murders than Chicago but many more per capita.

KIM SMITH: So while it is true that Chicago had the largest total number of homicides of any American city, it's not the most dangerous on a per capita basis.

CORLEY: Add smaller cities to the mix, and, by some accounts, Chicago is not even in the top 20.

RAHM EMANUEL: That is actually true.

CORLEY: That's Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But critics argue that talking about the murder rate is splitting hairs. Even Emanuel says he's not proud of the rate.

EMANUEL: Last Wednesday, the Sup (ph) announced that overall homicides are down 24 percent. Last year they were down 16. Shootings were down I think 19 or 20 percent. But nobody walks around going - you know what? - I feel 42 percent better this year.

CORLEY: At a press conference this week, the mayor and the police superintendent talked about steps the city is taking to combat violence - like technology that identifies people in hot spots, putting more officers in troubled locations, creating thousands more summer jobs for youth. But Emanuel sparked a firestorm when he said there needs to be a politically incorrect conversation about values and character and right and wrong. Critics accused Emanuel of blaming victims and want him to focus on jobs and schools and long-neglected inner city communities. Arthur Lurigio is a criminologist at Loyola University in Chicago. He says the mayor does get it right when he says people don't care much about statistics.

ARTHUR LURIGIO: But what affects them viscerally and emotionally are the graphic images of the city - of crime scenes and people in the throes of grief, having lost young ones, children being shocked. Those images stay with us.

CORLEY: Lurigio says Chicago's reputation for violence dates back to the days of mobster Al Capone and Tommy guns. It's an image that endures. And in some Chicago neighborhoods, widespread gun violence is a constant. Entrenched segregation, severe poverty and economic disparity are all factors. In Chicago's North Side and the city's downtown, the rate of violence is similar to low levels in Los Angeles and New York. In Chicago, murders happen largely in neighborhoods on the South and West Side.

BRIAN HALL: Run it in. Run it in. Touchdown, hey.

CORLEY: At the park in West Englewood, clusters of boys in football uniforms are running drills. The peewee and varsity youth football teams are sponsored by the Chicago Bears. Park District coach Brian Hall (ph) says this is the part of West Englewood people outside the area don't know anything about.

HALL: Stuff like this, what we're doing right here, rarely gets any publicity. But it is what it is. We try to keep our kids off the streets. We do our best. Get the parents involved. And you just keep on moving. Just keep on moving.

CORLEY: And city officials say even if facts show that Chicago's murder rate is far better than many cities, there is still significant work to do to change both the perception and the reality of the pervasive gun violence and the number of homicides that occur in some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUSKEN'S "BANTHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.