Chicago has already recorded more than 500 murders for 2016, a 50 percent increase from 2015, and a rate not seen since the 1990s
Chicago (AFP) - Chicago is to hire hundreds more police officers to help it combat a murder epidemic that has claimed more than 500 lives so far this year, the highest homicide rate of any major US city.
Police chief Eddie Johnson said Wednesday that 970 additional sworn personnel will be recruited over the next two years -- the bulk of the positions being patrol officers and detectives.
"These added resources will make us better, and give us the capacity we need to address our crime problems across the city," Johnson said at a news conference.
Johnson evaded questions of how the increase would be paid for in a city that has suffered chronic budget shortfalls, and recently hiked taxes and government fees to shore up its finances. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office has not yet outlined its fiscal plan.
Chicago already has a full-time police force of 12,656 sworn officers, many of whom have been asked to work overtime to increase staffing in short bursts in order to combat rising gun violence.
Johnson acknowledged that that strategy has taxed officers. "They're not machines. We just can't keep pushing and pushing,” he said.
By the end of 2018, the city plans to have a police force totaling 13,535 sworn positions.
The city has already recorded more than 500 murders in 2016 -- a rate not seen since the 1990s, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune. (The city has not seen a force surge since the 1990s either, according to the police department.)
To make matters worse, the police department reportedly only solves about 30 to 40 percent of homicides, which are mostly fueled by gangs and the drug trade.
Meanwhile, the police department has been under scrutiny, facing a federal civil rights probe after the release of a video late last year showing a police officer fatally shooting unarmed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The officer who shot the teenager 16 times was charged with murder, and Johnson recommended that seven others be fired for covering up the crime.
Johnson this week implemented mandatory training to teach officers conflict de-escalation techniques, which he considers part of his strategy to increase community cooperation in solving crimes.
"Every day we have to work hard to getting the trust of the community back," Johnson said. "We didn't lose trust overnight. We didn't. So we're not going to get it back overnight."
- 'Social ills' -
Experts lauded Chicago's plan to hire more cops as an important step toward combating the city's escalating murder rate.
There are more murders in Chicago than Los Angeles and New York combined -- both of which have larger populations than Chicago's 2.7 million.
"Overtime can't be a long-term solution," Christine Cole, executive director of the policing think-tank Crime and Justice Institute told AFP.
"The conversations that I've been hearing among police professionals, including people outside the city of Chicago, is that they've been understaffed for some time," Cole said.
A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law projected that murder rates in 2016 will increase 13 percent nationwide, but that Chicago will lead the way with a 47 percent jump.
Ames Grawert, who co-authored the report, told AFP that an increase in the city's police force can make a difference.
"One thing that we found in our previous reports (is) that officer hiring was positively correlated with a decrease in crime," Grawert said.
But Johnson cautioned that the many factors driving Chicago's crime -- education, economics, and even mental health issues -- cannot be solved by increasing the police force alone.
"The social ills of the country are being dumped on the doorstep of law enforcement," Chicago's top cop said. "The mayor understands that. He knows that this is a piece of our crime-fighting strategy."