CHICAGO — More than 760 people were murdered in this city last year, and the pace of bloodshed in 2017 has barely relented. Children in large portions of Chicago grow up afraid to venture outside. Teenagers are buried with numbing regularity.
The root causes of the violence are familiar, and they can seem intractable: poverty, segregation, subpar education, distrust of the police.
Several local leaders spoke on Wednesday in Chicago with journalists from The New York Times about efforts to reduce the bloodshed at an event arranged by the newspaper and the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The conversations revealed anecdotal signs of progress, uncertainty about the months ahead and vigorous debate about the best ways to intervene. (Watch the full event here.)
Still, the shootings persist. During Wednesday’s event, which lasted about two and a half hours, at least three people were shot in Chicago.
“We experienced a completely unexpected, dramatic increase in gun violence almost instantaneously.” — Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab
Violence is not a new problem in Chicago. But after murders trended downward here for about 20 years, a spike in 2016 left the city reeling and grasping for answers.
Last Memorial Day weekend, a team of New York Times journalists, including those in the Chicago bureau, fanned out across the city to learn more about the reasons for the increase and the impact it has had on families and neighborhoods. Over three days, we visited dozens of shooting scenes and spoke with victims, community members and police officers.
Times reporters followed up on several cases from Memorial Day in the months that followed. Julie Bosman and Catrin Einhorn tracked the story of one girl, fatally wounded on Lake Shore Drive, whose family had been consumed by gang violence for years.
In a particularly troubled part of the West Side, I profiled the family of a young mother named Precious Land who had been shot while driving near her home. Ms. Land died in January.
“The relationship between community and law enforcement, which is an absolutely necessary component to get to solutions, has been fractured.” — Kim Foxx, Cook County state’s attorney
The sharp escalation in violence started shortly after a Chicago police officer was charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager. After the charges were announced, video was released showing the officer firing 16 times as Mr. McDonald crumpled onto a street.
Protesters marched for months, outraged both by the shooting itself and the fact that the dash camera video was withheld from public view for more than a year.
Accusations of excessive force, torture and coerced confessions have dogged law enforcement here for decades. The McDonald episode rekindled long-held suspicions of the Chicago police in many of the neighborhoods where gun violence is most pervasive.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has since promised to overhaul the police, and the Justice Department conducted an investigation that revealed discriminatory practices. In a primary election, Ms. Foxx defeated the prosecutor who had waited a year to bring charges in Mr. McDonald’s death.
But the mistrust lingers, and crime witnesses and victims often refuse to cooperate with detectives. The Chicago Police Department clears less than 30 percent of its homicide cases, far worse than the national average.
“We have to do something that’s transformative,” said Cmdr. Kenneth Johnson of the police, whose district on the South Side has had progress reducing crime this year. “And we have to put ourselves in a position where the public believes in us once again.”
“Violence is, in my opinion, the disease of our society.” — Dr. Selwyn Rogers Jr., section chief of trauma and acute care surgery, University of Chicago Medicine
Chicago has more murders than any other American city, but much of that violence is concentrated in small areas of the South and West Sides, in segregated neighborhoods where poverty is endemic and most residents are black or Hispanic.
Over Memorial Day weekend, one-quarter of the 64 shooting victims were in a six-square-mile police district on the West Side.
Monica Davey, the Chicago bureau chief for The Times, returned to that district repeatedly last summer to learn more about its residents and their struggles. She discovered a place where many lots are vacant, where open-air drug markets flourish and where residents constantly hear gunfire.
Many of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods have had public schools and mental health clinics close in recent years, symptoms of budget problems that affect the city, state and local school districts. The loss of those neighborhood anchors, advocates say, makes stemming the violence all the more difficult.
“The vast majority of guys are looking to make a change. It is too dangerous out there. They’re tired of being shot at. They’re tired of the police chasing them.” — Arne Duncan, former secretary of education
Unlike decades ago, when much of Chicago’s violence was driven by a lucrative drug trade, the police today say many shootings are instead motivated by petty disputes and turf wars. Gangs here have changed — they are less organized and less profitable, more splintered and more volatile.
John Eligon, a national correspondent, spent part of last year reporting on gang members on the South Side. He found young men who had lost friends to violence, who participated in crime and carried weapons, but who also held mundane part-time jobs and passed the hours playing video games.
An abundance of intervention programs have popped up in Chicago, seeking to reach youths most likely to be wooed by gang life or shot on a street corner.
Mr. Duncan, a South Side native, has provided at-risk young men with decent-paying jobs. Autry Phillips, an anti-crime worker from the West Side, has focused on reaching out directly to people lingering on the streets.
“There’s no secret sauce on what we do,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s really just treating individuals on the corner, check this out, as human beings.”
But almost everyone acknowledges that no individual program can eliminate the shootings, and some fear that Chicago’s escalated levels of violence have become the new normal.