In a promising start to 2019, homicides and shootings have dropped sharply over the first three months, Chicago police say, continuing a decline since 2016, when violence hit levels not seen since the 1990s.

Homicides plummeted 38 percent through March 24, the latest department statistics show, as most of the city’s 22 patrol districts reported declines, including in the South and West Side neighborhoods that traditionally struggle with violence, poverty and other social ills. Shooting incidents fell by 19 percent.

Arguably, the biggest improvement took place in the Calumet District on the Far South Side, which had seen a single homicide and only 10 shooting incidents through March 24, though a shooting a day later left a 33-year-old woman dead and her husband and 1-year-old son wounded. The district had 11 homicides and 23 shooting incidents in the year-earlier period.

Calumet District Cmdr. Joel Howard, who was named to the post last summer, knows the true test will come as the weather — and the violence — heats up in coming weeks.

Howard has found that much of the violence stems from disputes over social media that, he said, can often be discovered before trouble erupts if police make inroads with the community.

“More times than not, the neighborhood knows more about what’s going on than we do,” Howard told the Tribune in a telephone interview.

In recent years, Chicago has garnered unflattering national attention — particularly from President Donald Trump — as the big city with the most homicides and shootings, though other cities have worse per capita rates. In recent years, homicides in Chicago have outnumbered both New York City and Los Angeles combined, despite their considerably larger populations.

Yet through March 24, New York has seen its homicides rise 14 percent to 65, just one less than Chicago has reported with its 38 percent decline from 106 in the year-earlier period.

The first-quarter numbers continue the double-digit declines seen in both 2018 and 2017 after the disastrous 2016 results when more than 760 people were killed and in excess of 4,300 were shot across the city.

Criminologists caution against reading too much into fluctuations in crime statistics from year to year. The first three months of the year typically are the least violent because the city’s cold, snowy winters limit opportunities for gang disputes and other beefs to erupt outdoors.

But Howard and other department officials credit the improvements to technology gains; the boost in staffing to about 13,400 officers, up some 1,000 since 2016; assistance from specialized police units; and more concerted efforts to increase community support. Officers, for instance, are attending meetings hosted by local aldermen to act on residents’ concerns about quality-of-life issues such as abandoned buildings and drug sales, he said.

On the technology front, the department now has nerve centers in all but two districts. Equipped with large TV screens displaying crime maps and surveillance video, the centers analyze computerized shooting data in real time to determine where best to dispatch officers. ShotSpotter helps pinpoint the location of gunfire.

The department is also making more use of electronic license plate readers, adding 200 of them to its fleet of police vehicles to help combat carjackings and auto thefts. Just last week, the department touted their use in helping solve the killing of off-duty Officer John P. Rivera.

With ShotSpotter, police said it often takes only a minute or so to alert officers to the location of gunshots. Often, callers to 911 then give a description of the gunman. Officers in the center then activate police surveillance cameras in the area in hopes of spotting the suspect — and pass on any information to responding officers.

If an arrest is made, the center tries to figure out the likelihood of a retaliation shooting.

Officer Steve Rusanov, who until recently worked in the Calumet District’s nerve center, said he believes those efforts are contributing to the drop in shootings in the district, which covers neighborhoods such as Roseland and West Pullman.

The center will try to be “proactive” by deploying officers to the shooting scene to tamp down on any possible retaliation, Rusanov said.

Community organizations have been stepping up their efforts to combat violence in the area as well.

Since last summer, Chicago CRED, an anti-violence organization, has used outreach workers and mental health technicians to try to forge relationships with about 70 residents — mostly males aged 17 to 30 — who are among the most likely to be the victims or instigators of violence in the Calumet District.

“We’re really starting to see some dividends,” said Jalon Arthur, the group’s director of strategic initiatives. “We’re seeing the back-and-forth between those guys are starting to actually slow down in a drastic fashion.”

The outreach workers — who live in Roseland and West Pullman as well — mediate conflicts to try to prevent shootings or retaliation.

“Everywhere we go, somebody is going to recognize one or two of our outreach workers that are from those areas,” Arthur said. “That helps with the trust barrier.”

Diane Latiker, head of the West Pullman-based Kids Off the Block, said different community groups in the Calumet District have been working together, often overseeing the same youths most vulnerable to the violence.

“We’re not violence-free,” she said. “But we are so much better … because we hit those streets, we make sure we keep up with those young people and we partner with the Police Department.”

With warmer weather approaching, Latiker said, her next goal is to ensure the youths she oversees take part in a summer basketball league and find summer jobs.

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JeremyGorner

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