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During the pandemic, gun violence has been devastating communities across the country

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Throughout the pandemic, a scourge of gun violence has devastated families and neighborhoods across the country, including Chicago. Most of the city's nearly 800 murders in 2021 involved a shooting. And there's pressure to try to find ways to prevent this staggering loss of life as we enter a new year. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

TEYONNA LOFTON: Please repeat after me. Everyday shootings...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Everyday shootings.

LOFTON: ...Are everyday problems.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: About 60 people stand in a large gymnasium chanting about the violence in their neighborhood, the collective trauma etched on their faces. They hold pictures of a smiling 20-year-old college student. LaNiyah Murphy, an anti-violence activist, was one of the city's first homicide victims of 2022. Murphy, who survived a shooting four years earlier, was shot in a car while helping a friend get home. As her friend Teyonna Lofton holds back tears, she pounds a podium and implores authorities to act.

LOFTON: How many else has to die? How many else has to get shot for you to stand up and make a change? You have to do your job. You have to stop these murders. You have to solve these cases. Do not disappoint her.

CORLEY: Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, met with the police department's top brass this week to discuss safety plans for the year and said much more has to be done.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: This year is make or break. We've got to do a better job than what we did in 2021. No questions about it. No excuses. It's about accountability. It's making sure that our residents are safe.

CORLEY: That accountability, says Lightfoot, includes doubling down on carjackers, continuing to target gun traffickers with the help of federal agents, expanding community policing. It's a familiar litany from the city. And the police department under a federal consent decree is required to make changes. Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown says one that will have impact is the plan to add 200 more homicide detectives.

DAVID BROWN: It's not a small thing to have the case per detective go from five to three in our homicide unit. That's significant. That's the gold standard for homicide investigations. That gets you to a much higher clearance rate.

CORLEY: But what people want to see is action that could prevent murders in the first place. It's a frustrating dilemma. Eddie Bocanegra, the senior director of the anti-violence group READI Chicago, says what's garnered some success is building relationships with the men the group serves, 18- to 31-year-olds who are most at risk of gun violence, and helping them disrupt their daily routines.

EDDIE BOCANEGRA: When they have to react to their normal situation in an abnormal way, which is picking up a gun and then mitigating their conflict through violence.

CORLEY: Bocanegra says it's no easy fix, and change takes time. While there are other organizations that also use street outreach workers to reach primarily young men involved in violence, Bocanegra says inconsistent funding for the groups can make it difficult to put a dent in the spiraling homicide numbers. There's also been mixed results in the city's recent effort to lower violence in 15 areas where residents are far more likely to be shot by providing resources like jobs and housing.

Still, a long-term approach to address poverty and other root causes of violence is critical, says Lightfoot. Buoyed by federal stimulus funds, the city budget includes more than a billion dollars for affordable housing, mental health care and other supports. Lightfoot says it will build opportunities in poorer areas that bear the brunt of homicides.

LIGHTFOOT: So that we fight the crime, and we fight the pipeline and the lure of the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody out in the street?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, not yet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Not yet.

CORLEY: Traffic stopped for the family and friends of LaNiyah Murphy as they gathered in the middle of a busy street. They clutched purple balloons, ready to release them in her memory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Three, two, one.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: LaNiyah.

CORLEY: Amber Edwards (ph) still held a picture of her slain niece. Edwards says she knows about the city's efforts to put more cops on the street and to get people involved in different programs. Does she think it will help?

AMBER EDWARDS: A little. It's taking the steps, I guess.

CORLEY: Still, Edwards says she feels helpless. For many people here, the question is whether 2022 can be different at all? Will there be fewer gunshots, less street violence, no need to release balloons?

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.