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Chicago Takes New Tack to Reduce Homicides

Chicago faces an awkward duality: while the number of homicides hit a 36-year low in 2003, Chicago still has the most of any city in the country.

But, with 599 homicides last year, 49 fewer than in 2002, law enforcement officials say they are optimistic, citing a notable drop in killings after new police tactics were adopted in the latter half of 2003. Even with the newly released statistics, some residents are skeptical.

"Chicago is still a great place to live, but I don't think it's safer than it was before," said Melanie Walters, 40, a resident of the city's southeast side.

The Police Department, under new leadership, is trying to change that perception. The department has re-evaluated how it distributes officers and is focusing them in areas with heavy gang activity, where most of the homicides occur. Of the killings through November, 42.5 percent, or 237, were gang-related.

The department has also installed surveillance cameras in the roughest neighborhoods and pulled 1,000 officers from behind their desks to patrol on a rotating basis. One of the greatest successes, department officials say, has been the six-month-old Targeted Response Unit, whose members are deployed to the area with the highest number of shootings and killings the previous week. The 160-officer unit has arrested nearly 2,600 people, questioned about 10,000, confiscated 130 guns and helped the department end the year with 1,000 fewer shootings than in 2002.

Eli B. Silverman, a professor of police studies at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, said Chicago's homicide rate would continue to fall if the city committed to this new method of deployment.

"Crime is like crab grass," he said. "If you don't constantly pay attention to it, it will crop back up."

Carl Saffold, 23, said he had mixed feeling about increased patrolling in his west side neighborhood. Mr. Saffold said he had been stopped by the police at least 30 times in his life. "Some cops just do it because they can," Mr. Saffold said.

Law enforcement officials said they had received few complaints about the new unit. Philip J. Cline, the police superintendent, said that people just wanted to be safer.

"They want to walk down the streets without being shot," Mr. Cline said.

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