Chicago's 2016 killings: 'Deadliest start to a year' in 2 decades, paper says

Chicago police address conduct in new video
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Story highlights

  • Chicago's 102 homicides are "the deadliest start to a year in the city in nearly two decades," paper says
  • Police acknowledge that "the level of violence is unacceptable"
  • Top cop soothes officers' worries about being "the next YouTube video that goes viral"

(CNN)Murder just doesn't quit in Chicago, the one-time U.S. capital for such death.

Two months into the new year, the city at the center of last year's Spike Lee film "Chi-Raq" is again posting alarming violence statistics.
    The 51 killings in January makes the month the deadliest on record for at least 16 years, CNN affiliate WGN reported.
    Now Chicago has recorded at least 43 killings in February, and the Chicago Tribune has declared the city's homicide count so far as "the deadliest start to a year in the city in nearly two decades," or since 1997.
    The newspaper tabulated 102 homicides in the first two months of this year, explaining that police count only those violent deaths considered criminal. The newspaper used its own statistics and those of the police.
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    Exact counts aside, the bloodbath is significant enough to prompt Interim Police Superintendent John J. Escalante to concede, "It's been unfortunately a pretty big spike for us this year."
    His department's press release on Tuesday described the violence as "Chicago's historic challenge with guns" and added that "the level of violence is unacceptable and CPD continues to aggressively target those responsible, especially in neighborhoods where gang activity is most active."
    In a separate measure, Escalante produced and appeared in a video addressing all officers last week about combating the violence.
    Last year, Chicago police officers were accused by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel of holding back and withdrawing from apprehending criminals out of a fear of being videotaped by civilians and perhaps being accused of misconduct.
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    In the new video, Escalante addressed officers' worries "about not wanting to be the next YouTube video that goes viral." He was joined in the video by Chief of Patrol Eddie T. Johnson.
    Escalante highlighted how officers have recently been assigned to protests against the department and were frequently videotaped by protesters. Escalante praised how those videotaped officers "have shown remarkable professionalism and remarkable restraint."
    "We recognize that there is a difference between a mistake and misconduct. Honest mistakes are corrected through training and supervision," he said. "I think we are all in agreement that there will be no tolerance, though, for misconduct."
    Escalante and Johnson addressed officers' concerns about how the U.S. Justice Department is also investigating whether Chicago police have made a habit of violating the law or the U.S. Constitution in their policing. That so-called "pattern-and-practice" investigation is focusing on the use of force, deadly force, accountability, and how the Chicago Police Department tracks and treats those incidents.
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    Johnson sought to ease officers' anxieties about the inquiry.
    "They are not here to target individual officers," Johnson said. "I just ask you to remain professional, be courteous, be careful, and above all be safe."
    The Justice Department investigation was launched last year after police released the October 2014 video of Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald on a Chicago street.
    The video of McDonald's death outraged many Chicagoans, who took to the streets to protest what they felt was an excessive use of force and dishonesty by the city and Van Dyke's fellow officers, who initially accused McDonald of threatening officers. The demonstrators also questioned why it took more than 400 days to release the video, despite the city paying McDonald's mother $5 million.
    McDonald was a black teenager. The officer who shot him is white, and has been charged with first-degree murder. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty.
    The spotlight on the case shone bright enough to illuminate another case -- that of Ronald Johnson, who was killed by police eight days before McDonald's death. There were no charges against the officer responsible for Johnson's death.
    On Tuesday, after working with the American Civil Liberties Union, Chicago officers started using a newly simplified version of a so-called Investigatory Stop form. The officers fill out the form during "stop and frisk" searches.
    Chicago police reported that since the middle of February, gun arrests are up 43%, and that for the whole month, arrests for homicide are up 40% over February 2015.
    "While we have much more work to do, however, the Chicago Police Department will not rest until every resident in every neighborhood enjoys the same sense of safety. We will continue to work tirelessly on ways to stop violence and restore accountability and trust in communities throughout the city," Escalante said in a statement.
    Recent headlines called Chicago the "murder capital of the U.S." or "murder city" as the city battled a yearslong struggle with rising and falling homicide rates, especially in poorer, less-educated, black neighborhoods such as Austin and Englewood.
    The FBI's crime statistics in 2012 showed Chicago as having more homicides than any other U.S. city, with 503, more than New York, which has three times the population.