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Chicago Experiences Most Violent Month In Nearly 20 Years


Today ends the most violent month Chicago has seen in nearly 20 years. More than 400 people were shot in August, and so far this year, the city has had more homicides and shootings than Los Angeles and New York combined. Peter Nickeas is one of the Chicago Tribune reporters keeping track of each shooting. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: This number from August breaks down to an average of more than a dozen shootings a day. Who are the typical victims, and who are the typical perpetrators?

NICKEAS: I never looked at it as more than a dozen a day, but I guess that makes sense. Most often the violence is between people who know each other, and it's usually over personality disputes, disrespect. A lot of it's entangled with drug trade. There's gang beefs that can lead to shootings, and a lot of it's retaliatory. But by and large it's among people who know each other.

SHAPIRO: You said you hadn't thought of it as more than a dozen a day. How do you think of it?

NICKEAS: The way it's been the last few years is a lot of it's confined to the weekends. It's less confined that way in the summer when school's out. But what we're seeing this year that we haven't in years past is weeknights. Like, last night there was 18 people shot on a Tuesday night. That's a lot. That used to be, like, a bad weekend night, but now it's sort of normal now to pass four dozen shootings in a weekend. We had 67 people shot this last weekend.

SHAPIRO: And are there initiatives to stop the violence that just aren't working, or are there not enough of those initiatives? Why are things going in the wrong direction?

NICKEAS: I mean the successes personally that I've seen over the years have been on an intensely local level. And so you're talking about making sure there's not a shooting on a block or a corner. Personally the longer I've been doing this I've - I find that I have a harder time sizing up potential solutions because it's like with everything, every potential solution, there's 10 more questions.

SHAPIRO: You worked the overnight shift for about three years, covering violent crime and murder. What was a typical night like?

NICKEAS: There wasn't really a typical night. You end up - you don't know what you're going to get into each night, so you know, try to keep an open mind everywhere you go. And when you get to a shooting or a homicide, you try to find somebody that you can have a conversation with so you can tell stories that are a little more in-depth than just so-and-so got shot here, and everybody was dead.

SHAPIRO: So what do you hear from people night after night?

NICKEAS: I mean it's a lot of, you know, things weren't like this before. There's a sense that even in the '90s when the homicide numbers were worse, there was a sense of order to things that there's not now. People tell us that the guys doing the shooting are younger than they used to be. I haven't seen data to back that, but we've heard it from so many people that it - and it sort of rings true to me.

There's a - there was a sense that when they locked up all the leaders of the bigger gangs - you have a lot of factions now, tiny groups, maybe a block or two fighting with each other. And so you can't just say, well, let's just go talk to the leader, and he'll squash things or, you know, try to come to some tentative peace between groups because there are so many of these small groups.

SHAPIRO: Can you leave us with the story of one victim that sticks in your mind from the 400-plus shootings of the last month?

NICKEAS: Yeah, for sure. There was - we went to a house of a young man who was shot to death. He was 13. His name is Leo Betancourt. And he had a nephew. This 13-year-old had a nephew who at the time didn't quite understand, like, why he wouldn't be able to see his uncle again because the nephew had another uncle who had been shot twice over the past couple years, and he was able to see him each time after he was shot.

SHAPIRO: This is a 6-year-old learning the difference between getting shot and getting killed.

NICKEAS: Right. Well, he knows now, which, you know, which sucks. But how do you explain that to a kid? I don't know.

SHAPIRO: Well, Peter Nickeas, thank you for the work you're doing, and thank you for talking with us about it.

NICKEAS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Peter Nickeas is a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. The dramatic spike in violence in the city comes at a time when Chicago's police department is under serious scrutiny after several scandals. Elsewhere in the program we'll hear the latest on a new plan by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make the Chicago PD more accountable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.