Chicago is having a bloody year.
Already since January, more than 100 people have been murdered in the city — double the number of homicides in Chicago during the first two months last year. The number of shooting incidents is also up by 120 percent compared to the first nine weeks of 2015.
The spike in violent crime comes at a time when the police in Chicago are under increased scrutiny for misconduct.
It started with the release of a video last fall that showed a white police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times, resulting in a Justice Department civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department's patterns and practices. Then there were other incidents of police shootings, brutality and misconduct, followed by allegations of officers covering for one another and higher ups failing to hold officers accountable.
In short, the heat and public scrutiny on Chicago police officers right now is intense.
"Well, morale is poor, to describe it in one word," says Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police. "It's probably the lowest I've seen in my career."
There is a feeling among police officers, Angelo says, "that no one wants to be on that next video."
The 'Laquan McDonald Effect'
The dash cam video released under court order in November showed Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into Laquan McDonald as the 17-year-old was moving away from the police while holding a small knife. The incident continues to hamper Chicago police.
Van Dyke was charged with murder — but only hours before the video went public and more than a year after the shooting took place. The political fallout from the video's release amid daily anti-police protests cost police Superintendent Garry McCarthy his job.
Interim police Superintendent John Escalante acknowledges there might have been a "Laquan McDonald effect," where police officers are less aggressive and even somewhat passive in pursuing criminals.
"There's a little bit of an effect," says Escalante. "Every officer I think, not just here in Chicago, but every police officer around the country does not want to be that next viral video."
Police in Chicago made 30 percent fewer arrests in the early part of this year compared to last year. Street stops are down more than 80 percent so far this year.
Escalante was so concerned that he recently recorded a video message sent out to all 12,000 Chicago police officers emphasizing that those doing their jobs properly don't have to worry about being that next viral video. He also clarified how officers can continue to make investigative street stops without violating new state laws and announced a landmark agreement with the ACLU designed to prevent racial profiling. As a result, Escalante says both arrests and street stops are now back on the rise.
But the city's sharp increase in violent crime continues unabated.
"The majority of it is still gang violence," Escalante says. "We're seeing a significant percentage of that gang violence being fueled by social media."
Escalante says social media taunts are the new gang graffiti and in today's gang culture, there are almost immediate, violent responses to those taunts, which in turn spurs retaliatory shootings.
A very mild winter may also be contributing to Chicago's increase in violence. Warmer weather means more people are out and there is more opportunity for conflicts. When temperatures reached the 70s earlier this week, 21 people were shot and two of them were killed in a 20-hour period.
Angelo rejects the notion that the police are somehow responsible for an increase in violent crime, but he says the police are under pressure.
"You know, they're damned when they put people on the wall and search them ... if they have weapons on them, and now they're being blamed for not putting people on the wall to search them to see if they have weapons on them," he says.
Angelo says police officers now are walking what he calls "a thin blue line" between protecting law abiding citizens and getting law breakers off the streets. Some cops on the street agree.
"Yeah, (the) job's real tough," says Ron Rewers, a 17-year veteran police officer. "You know, you got a lot of eyes on you and a lot of people don't understand the job and they want to jump to conclusions about what we do and what we're supposed to do."
Improving Relations With Chicago Teens
Rewers is one of several officers from the 12th Chicago police district volunteering on Friday nights to coach a new basketball league for 13- to 15-year-old boys who live in and around the public housing development known as the ABLA homes on the city's west side.
Officer Paris Edwards, another 17-year veteran of the force, came up with the idea for the league as a way to improve relations with teenagers in the neighborhood.
"We've known for quite a while that the relationship between the police and youth has been one that has been strained," Edwards says. "The youth feel like the only time they have interaction with the police is when they're being stopped for questioning or they're being looked at for committing some type of crime."
Edwards says the goal is to build a little teamwork and trust.
"In basketball, you do have to communicate. Coaches and players have to communicate. If we can get the youth communicating with these officers, then we can develop some type of relationship outside of them being stopped and questioned for some type of crime," he says.
Star player Daronte Peterson, 13, says he welcomes the chance to see police officers in a different arena.
"I'm glad they doing this because like, right here where we are at now, it's a very bad neighborhood and I'm glad the police came to do this for us," Peterson says.
If the police-led basketball program shows real results in improving relations between beat cops and black teenagers, city officials say it will likely be expanded and replicated across the city.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The city of Chicago is having a bloody year. Already since January, more than a hundred people have been murdered there. That is more than double the number at this time last year. This spike in violent crime comes as the police department is under federal investigation, coping with low morale and searching for a new police chief. But the department is also trying something new. Here's NPR's David Schaper.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's not "Friday Night Lights." It's Friday night hoops. Young teenage boys on Chicago's west side are running up and down the floor, dribbling, passing, shooting and rebounding. It's an intense game.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, guys, get your man. Get your man.
SCHAPER: The coaches in this newly-formed basketball league in a park district gym near a public housing development are all Chicago police officers. Officer Paris Edwards explains why.
PARIS EDWARDS: We've known for quite a while that the relationship between the police and you has been one that has been strained.
SCHAPER: Edwards acknowledges that many of the black teenagers in this neighborhood feel as though police officers only look at them with suspicion. So the goal is to build a little teamwork and trust.
EDWARDS: If we can get the youth communicating with these officers then we could develop some type of relationship outside of them being stopped and questioned for some type of crime.
SCHAPER: Thirteen-year-old Daronte Peterson is one of the star players.
DARONTE: I'm glad they're doing this because, like, right here where we at now it's a very bad neighborhood. And I'm glad that the police came to do this for us.
SCHAPER: The effort to improve police community relations comes at a tough time for Chicago cops. One of the volunteer coaches is 17-year veteran police officer Ron Rewers.
RON REWERS: You know, you got a lot of eyes on you and a lot of people don't understand the job and they want to jump to conclusions about what we do and what we're supposed to do.
SCHAPER: The scrutiny on Chicago police has intensified since the November release of dash-cam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald a year earlier. The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a civil rights investigation into the patterns and practices of Chicago police. And it's affecting morale.
DEAN ANGELO: Well, morale is poor, to describe it in one word.
SCHAPER: Dean Angelo is president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police.
ANGELO: This is probably the lowest I've seen in my career.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is 15 - citywide - shots fired - Laramie and Congress. Frank said he heard shots - seven shots fired between Congress, Parkway and Van Buren...
SCHAPER: Calls such as this are going out over Chicago police radios with greater frequency as shootings are up significantly so far this year. This particular incident did not result in any injuries, but there have been more than 450 shooting incidents and more than 100 people murdered in Chicago so far this year. That's more than double the number of both at this point last year.
JOHN ESCALANTE: The majority of it is still gang violence.
SCHAPER: Chicago's interim police superintendent, John Escalante.
ESCALANTE: We're seeing a significant percentage of that gang violence being fueled by social media.
SCHAPER: Escalante says social media taunts spark violent responses, which in turn spurs retaliation. But those elements of street violence are not new. What is new is a significant decline in the number of street stops and arrests this year by Chicago police. Street stops are down more than 80 percent compared to the first two months of last year. Arrests are down significantly, too. Escalante acknowledges being concerned about a so-called Laquan McDonald effect leading to less aggressive policing.
ESCALANTE: Every officer I think not just here in Chicago but every police officer around the country does not want to be that next viral video.
SCHAPER: The interim superintendent recently sent a video message to all 12,000 Chicago police officers emphasizing that those doing their jobs properly don't have to worry. Police union president Dean Angelo says officers are still diligently doing their jobs, but...
ANGELO: You know, they are damned when they put people on the wall and search them, you know, if they have weapons on them, and now they're being blamed for not putting people on a wall to search them to see if they have weapons on them.
SCHAPER: Angelo says police officers now are walking what he calls a thin blue line between protecting law-abiding citizens and getting lawbreakers off the streets. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.