CHICAGO – Earlier this year, Romell Young got into a fistfight on the street near his home on the city’s West Side, pummeling a man in a brawl that was spurred by an argument he can’t even remember.
Young does, however, have a scar to remind him what happened after he gave his rival a whupping: The man returned with a gun and shot him in the leg.
At the hospital, police asked Young, 23, to tell them who shot him, but he said he declined to name the assailant. Weeks after the April incident, Young – who has a long arrest record and a felony conviction for drug possession – was charged with illegal possession of a firearm after police said they caught him on the street with a weapon.
“I believe karma is (vengeful), you feel me?” said Young, explaining to USA TODAY in a jailhouse interview in July why he didn’t name the man who shot him. “One day you’re going to reap what you sow.”
Young’s no-snitching outlook sheds light on the complicated dynamic in Chicago’s neighborhoods plagued by gun violence, one in which few residents are willing to help police and even fewer perpetrators are held accountable.
Over the weekend, at least 72 people were shot in the city, including 12 fatally, but police did not record a single arrest in any of the incidents.
In an emotional response, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called on residents to speak up and cooperate with police.
“You all know who these individuals are. They come into your homes every day, sleep with you every night,” Johnson said. “Grandparents, parents, siblings, significant others – you know who they are.”
Chicago recorded more than 1,400 homicides and 6,200 shooting incidents in 2016 and 2017. This year the city has tallied more than 325 murders – 20 percent fewer killings than at the same point in 2017 – and the death toll puts Chicago again on pace to tally more homicides than any other American city.
At the same time, the police department in the nation’s third-largest city has solved far fewer murders over the past several years compared with most other major departments around the country.
Chicago’s clearance rate – the calculation of cases that end with an arrest or identification of a suspect who can’t be apprehended – dipped to 26 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 2013, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Most of the killings, largely fueled by gang violence, take place in a smattering of low-income, predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city.
Last year, as the city tallied 650 murders, the clearance rate plummeted to 17.5 percent, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis. The national homicide clearance rate stood at 59 percent in 2016, according to FBI estimates.
The numbers are even more dismal for non-fatal shootings. The department cleared only 5 percent of shootings in 2016, according to the Crime Lab.
The dip in Chicago’s homicide clearance rate coincided with a diminished view of the police department in the city’s African-American community after the release of a chilling police video that showed a white police officer fire 16 shots at Laquan McDonald, 17, a black suspect wielding a small knife. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, is scheduled to go on trial next month for first-degree murder.
Even before the McDonald shooting, the police department’s relationship in the African-American community had been strained by a long history of police brutality and allegations of heavy-handed tactics in the city’s low-income and minority communities.
Chicago borrowed about $709 million to pay settlements for police misconduct cases from 2010 to 2017, according to a report from the Action Center on Race & the Economy.
A Justice Department review last year also found Chicago officers used force nearly 10 times more in incidents involving black suspects than against white suspects. African-Americans were the subject of 80 percent of all police firearm uses and 81 percent of all Taser contact-stun uses from January 2011 to April 2016, the DOJ found.
"I recognize not just as the superintendent but as a black man who grew up in Chicago and has been a cop for 30 years ... the fact that we have some relationships to repair and to build in the minority communities," Johnson said. "But the simple fact of it is, the police department can't do it alone."
But another factor preventing more witnesses of gun violence to come forward is the street mantra that “snitches get stitches,” said the Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side pastor and anti-violence activist.
“People don’t speak out because of fear,” Acree said. “What if you speak out and there is a price to pay with your life? It would be nice if there was some significant funding for witness protection, but in real life you don’t get that.”
Emanuel, who is up for re-election in February, has faced a barrage of scrutiny from his political opponents who say he has done too little to address violent crime and win trust in the black community.
In recent weeks, anti-violence protesters have twice rallied, temporarily shutting down highways, to decry the violence and blast his administration for doing too little to help low-income, minority communities.
The mayor and his supporters have pushed back against the notion that he hasn’t acted, noting that in the aftermath of the McDonald video his administration has made it department policy to release police video of shootings within 60 days of an incident, equipped every beat officer with body cameras and tightened use-of-force standards.
Emanuel has also pointed to the $55 million his administration has poured into grants to spur small-business growth and job opportunities in many of the same neighborhoods hit hardest by the violence. He also has touted academic growth in the city’s school system – with a student body that is about 86% black and Latino – and his administration’s effort to create 30,000 paid internships around Chicago for teens and young adults.
On Tuesday, Emanuel and Johnson announced plans to redeploy as many as 600 officers to five areas that were home to most of the weekend violence. Johnson said the additional officers will stay in the districts until he's satisfied the violence is under control.
"We're going to work together and be honest about what the challenges are, what the solutions are, and where everybody can play a role to solve these problems," Emanuel said.
Still, his opponents say Emanuel’s efforts aren’t enough.
Garry McCarthy, a former police superintendent who is running against Emanuel, has accused the mayor of eroding public trust in rank-and-file cops. McCarthy was fired by Emanuel in 2015 amid public outrage over the release of the McDonald tape.
“The political manipulation of the police department and the political landscape that has been created in this city by Rahm Emanuel is what’s fueling all of this,” McCarthy told Fox News.
Paul Vallas, another candidate who had lined up to try to unseat Emanuel, says part of the clearance-rate problem is that the mayor has been too slow in replacing detectives who have retired in recent years. Vallas has vowed to add more than 400 investigators to the department if he is elected. The department now has about 700 detectives, down from 1,200.
“What you have is people in the community who are shooting, and shooting again and again and again,” Vallas said. “It’s taken a toll on the community. What we’ve seen the last seven years and longer than that ... is the police department attritted out of the critical forces they need to be effective.”
But Acree, the West Side pastor, said it is going to take far more than increasing the detective pool to encourage more residents to improve the city’s clearance rate record.
It’s no coincidence, he noted, that the same neighborhoods that have some of the city’s highest poverty rates also have the highest homicide rates:
“Until there is a change in political leadership and prioritizing investment in these communities, this is going to continue to happen.”