CHICAGO — In a year of relentless violence, Chicago has hit another gruesome milestone, exceeding 700 homicides on Wednesday for the first time in nearly two decades, according to official Police Department records.
It was not immediately clear which incident put the city at 701 homicides. At some point Wednesday, an April death was ruled a homicide. And then a fatal shooting took place about 8 p.m. in the South Shore neighborhood, said Frank Giancamilli, a police spokesman.
The year got off to a violent start with 50 homicides in January and rarely let up even after the end of the summer — the peak season for shootings.
The numbers are simply off the charts. The 701 homicides through Wednesday marked a nearly 56 percent jump from the 450 killings a year earlier. With one month still to go, that represents the most homicides since 704 in 1998.
Police Department statistics do not include killings on area expressways, police-involved shootings, other justifiable homicides or death investigations that could later be reclassified as homicides. And police said a fatal shooting happened early Thursday, the first day of December, but an autopsy hasn't confirmed that the death is a homicide.
Nearly 4,050 people have been shot, a 50 percent jump from 2,699 victims a year earlier, according to the department statistics. Shooting incidents rose by comparable figures, to 3,315, up 49 percent from 2,224 a year earlier.
The surge in violence has come at a time of upheaval for the Police Department amid an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Justice Department in the past year's fallout over the video showing the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by an officer.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who was a surprise appointment in March after the city's top cop was fired over the handling of the McDonald shooting, said his department is doing all it can to combat violence rooted in poverty and hopelessness.
On Tuesday, following a speech to the Union League Club, Johnson called this year's homicide totals "unacceptable," blaming what he called a "a small subsection of citizens" for the violence.
"The police are doing their job," he told reporters. "What we need help in is holding these repeat gun offenders accountable for this gun violence, and until we do that, we're going to continue to see the cycle of violence."
The city's violence continues to far outpace both New York and Los Angeles, whose populations far exceed Chicago. According to official statistics through about Nov. 20, New York and Los Angeles had a combined 565 homicides, far less than Chicago's total. In addition, both cities recorded a combined 2,117 shootings.
Crime experts caution about making year-to-year comparisons of homicides, arguing that long-term trends give a better understanding of how the level of violence in a city has changed over time.
Police officials have blamed much of Chicago's violence on the flow of illegal firearms through dangerous neighborhoods and an intractable gang problem. The gangs, once highly structured and hierarchal, have fractured into small factions. Petty disagreements and personal disputes can quickly turn violent with social media, crime experts have said.
Another factor contributing to the violence could be a drop in morale among Chicago police officers because of heightened scrutiny in the fallout over the McDonald shooting as well as a new law requiring detailed reports to be filled out for every street stop because of concerns over racial profiling. In interviews, officers recently told the Chicago Tribune that they had taken a more cautious approach to their work, concerned they could end up in a viral internet video, sued or fired.
So far this year, the bulk of the violence has been concentrated in neighborhoods on the South and West sides that have been plagued by decades of poverty, entrenched segregation, gangs, rampant narcotics sales and other social ills.
Two of the city's historically most violent police districts — Harrison and Englewood — account for close to one-fourth of the homicides and shooting incidents.
Harrison, a West Side district that includes communities such as West Garfield Park and North Lawndale, has recorded the most homicides in the city, with 84 through Nov. 20, an 87 percent increase over the 45 people slain a year earlier, official department statistics show. In the South Side's Englewood District, homicides have skyrocketed to 81, a 179 percent rise from 29 a year earlier. And in the Austin District on the West Side, homicides more than doubled to 54, from 26 a year earlier, the statistics show.
The Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, said he talks to young people in the community about staying in school and earning a legitimate living. But he knows it's not easy for them.
"It's really a culture of death," he said. "There's a lot of fear and a lot of assumption that they're not going to live long. They're going to get sucked up and killed."