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Chicago credits anti-gang efforts for drop in street violence

– The low point so far in Chicago’s closely watched battle with street gangs may have been the day that Michelle Obama came home for the funeral of a teenage honor student.

A year ago, the city’s bloodiest January in more than a decade had just ended. On Feb. 9, 2013, the first lady stood in a church mourning 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who had been fatally shot in a gang dispute she had nothing to do with.

It happened just a mile from the Obamas’ Chicago house.

Since then, the number of homicides and other violent crimes that turned Chicago into a national symbol of gun violence has fallen sharply, bringing some relief to neighborhoods plagued with gang activity but also raising questions about whether the progress is sustainable.

The city led the nation in homicides in 2012 with more than 500. It ended 2013 with 415 homicides – the lowest total in nearly half a century but still far more than any other U.S city, including much larger Los Angeles and New York.

The overall crime rate fell last year to a level not seen since 1972, and the number of shooting incidents involving victims 16 and younger dropped 40 percent in 12 months, city officials say.

Some wonder if the decline is a result of spending more than $100 million on police overtime.

But city officials insist the numbers are evidence that changing police tactics and creating and expanding after-school jobs and mentoring programs for young people are paying off.

Nobody pretends the problem has been solved. Yet Hadiya Pendleton’s great-uncle, Nathaniel Pendleton, feels more hopeful.

“It’s a long way from people feeling like they can sit out on their porches,” he said. “But it is getting a little better.”

On the day of the first lady’s visit, Chicago’s violence problem was making international headlines, posing an enormous challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff. The mayor stressed that the problem mostly affected gang-plagued neighborhoods and that police were doing everything possible to contain it.

Authorities launched a multipronged effort that started with a gang audit, a massive pooling of information about specific gangs and their members.

“We identified gang turfs, membership, who’s in conflict with who, put it into a database and put that into the hands of beat officers,” Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said.

With that information, he said, officers could focus on particular gangs and members and move quickly into areas where gangs might attack each other.

McCarthy, formerly police chief in Newark, N.J., and a high-ranking commander in New York, said officers also have alerted gangs that if one of their members kills somebody, police will go after everyone in the gang for any infraction – from “welfare fraud to failure to pay taxes.”

The department also provides gang members with information about social services and even sets up meetings between them and the parents of murder victims “to give them a sense of what they are doing to the community.”

McCarthy says it’s the largest program of its kind in the nation and will be expanded this year.

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