Chicago police said they investigated 27 shooting incidents that left at least 12 people dead and dozens of others wounded.
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CHICAGO — Just before Christmas, Tywone Lee dialed the Chicago Police Department detective charged with investigating the murder of her 18-year-old son, who was gunned down in July just blocks from their West Side home.

She’s called police more than 20 times since her child, Keyon Boyd, was fatally shot in the chest and two of his friends were wounded July 26 as they walked to play basketball at a nearby court in the city’s Austin neighborhood. Most of her attempts to get information about the unsolved case ended with her leaving messages that rarely were returned, she said.

On this day, she catches the detective, but receives no substantive information about the status of the investigation.

“There is just no accountability,” said a frustrated Lee after ending the call. “I understand they have a lot of cases, but this is what they are paid to do. They need to find and hold responsible whoever killed my son.”

Boyd was one of more than 750 murder victims killed in Chicago in 2016, which will end as the bloodiest year the city has seen since at least 1997, when 761 people were killed. The murder toll was up 58% as of Christmas Day, with the city tallying 275 more murders than the same time last year.

Nearly as unnerving as the number who have been killed in Chicago this year is how few of the assailants have been arrested.

The department’s murder clearance rate — the calculation of cases that end with an arrest or identification of a suspect who can’t be apprehended — has hovered at or below 30% for the past three years. The national clearance rate stood at 61.5% last year, while Chicago’s clearance rate was 25.6% last year, according to data compiled by the Virginia-based Murder Accountability Project. 

The dismal rate is a blemish Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has acknowledged and vowed to improve. More cases will be solved, he says, by repairing the department’s tattered reputation in predominantly black neighborhoods like the one where Lee lives, and by completing a plan to add hundreds of more detectives to the force.

“The first thing we have to do is improve our trust with the community — especially the minority community and CPD — that will help raise the clearance rate, because those individuals will be more comfortable in coming to us and giving us the information we need to hold these individuals accountable,” Johnson said at a recent forum. 

As Lee has clamored for answers in the shooting of her son — who is among 57 people killed this year in a district with a population of about 59,000 people — she says police department officials have asked for her patience as detectives throughout the city are piled with more cases than they can handle.

That excuse doesn’t assuage her anger.

“A lot of these kids are dying for no … reason, and no one seems to care,” said Lee, who was badly injured as a teenager when her brother accidentally shot her while cleaning a gun. “Our children’s lives matter, just like white children’s lives matter.”

The murder rate surged in several major U.S. metropolitans in 2016, including Houston, San Antonio and Las Vegas. In terms of murders per capita, smaller cities, such as St. Louis and New Orleans outpace the nation’s third largest city.

But the grim toll in Chicago, which has recorded more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined, has captured the most attention. President-elect Donald Trump on the stump even compared the city to a war-torn country.

Tywone Lee sits in her home in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Her son Keyon Boyd was killed July 26, 2016 in a shooting blocks from their home. (Photo: Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY)

Police officials say the surge in murders here is being driven by gangs in a few pockets in predominantly low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Johnson have also complained that repeat gun offenders are getting out of jail too quickly and contributing to the bloodshed. About 40% of homicide suspects arrested in Chicago last year had previously been convicted of a weapons offense, Johnson said.

The spike in violence comes as the Chicago Police Department has struggled through a tumultuous year following the court-ordered release in November 2015 of police video showing a white officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black suspect who was fired upon 16 times as he appeared to be running away from police.

The McDonald incident — which spurred a still-ongoing U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation of the police department’s practices and was followed by some other high-profile police-involved shooting incidents that further exacerbated tensions — was the “tipping point for long-simmering community anger,” according to an April report from the city’s police accountability task force.

In the aftermath of public outrage, Emanuel vowed to restore public trust for the police department in the city’s African-American community, which represents about a third of Chicago’s population. But more than a year into Emanuel’s relationship mending effort, the dismal murder clearance rate underscores how complicated the situation has become.

In response to the rising violence, Emanuel announced in September that the city would hire nearly 1,000 more cops over the next two years, including creating 350 additional detective positions. At the end of the hiring spree, the department is expected to have 13,500 sworn officers.

In the recruitment drive, the police department has put an emphasis on diversifying its force. Emanuel has also outlined plans to launch a universal mentoring program to help young men in some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods.

And in a nod to bolstering transparency, Emanuel and the police department also announced earlier this week they were speeding up a plan to equip every cop on the street with a body camera. All officers interacting with the public will now be wearing one by the end of next year.

Johnson says the low clearance rate will improve as the department expands its detective pool as part of the hiring surge. But ultimately, Johnson says, the ability of the police department to increase that rate correlates with the level of trust and cooperation officers build in the community.

“The police very seldom … witness a lot of the murders in front of them, so we need the community to give us the information, so we can hold these individuals accountable,” Johnson said. “Gang members count on that. They count on the public being fearful of their retaliation.”

The hiring push has been dismissed by some of activists in the predominantly black communities most impacted by the violence as a shortsighted attempt to solve the problem.

Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side minister who counseled more than a dozen families this year who lost loved ones to the gun violence, said that instead of hiring more cops he’d rather see the city investing in mitigating some of the ills that are leading young men to join gangs and engage in other criminal activity in areas most impacted by the violence.

“Instead of pouring resources into hiring cops to arrest the people who are responsible for the violence, it would be more effective to focus on stopping the violence before it happens in the first place,” Acree said. “We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. This is a problem that’s been caused by a lack of investment and opportunity for jobs and education in these communities.”

Peter Scharf, a criminologist at LSU’s School of Public Health, said it will take time for the addition of detectives to impact the clearance rates. He also was skeptical that more cops on the streets of Chicago — already one of the biggest departments in the country — will drive down the murder rate.

“Homicide detectives are like fine wines, they take a longtime to mature,” Scharf said. “To solve murders, you need to develop networks, you need snitches, you need to hone techniques. It’s a brave new world, and it could take years to catch up.”

Follow USA TODAY Chicago correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad

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