By James B. Kelleher and Jonathan Allen
CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a sharp contrast between two of the nation's largest cities, Chicago recorded its 499th murder of 2012 on Thursday night while New York reported 414 murders as of Friday even though it has more than three times the population, according to police.
Plagued by gang violence, Chicago surpassed last year's murder total of 433 in October and is set for the highest rate of homicide since the third largest U.S. city recorded 512 in 2008. The number is likely to top 500 on the last weekend of the year.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on Friday that the nation's largest city could finish the year with the lowest number of murders and shootings since 1963, when it began keeping comparable data. The number of murders this year in New York is only about one-fifth the total of 2,245 homicides recorded in the peak year of 1990.
CHICAGO LEADERS FRUSTRATED
The rising murder rate has frustrated Chicago Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who promised to make the city's streets safer when he took office in May 2011.
"It's unacceptable," McCarthy said in an interview with Reuters on Friday.
New York's Bloomberg trumpeted the news with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at a police recruit graduation ceremony in the borough of Brooklyn.
Kelly attributed the decline to the increasing use of stop-and-frisk tactics, when police can stop and search people on the street they consider suspicious.
"We're preventing crimes before someone is killed and before someone else has to go to prison for murder or other serious crimes," Kelly said in a statement.
Civil rights groups and some local politicians have criticized stop-and-frisk tactics, saying that most people stopped turn out to be innocent, and they unfairly target black and Latino men. The practice is the subject of a federal court case over whether it is unconstitutional.
New York has also spent $185 million to settle lawsuits filed against the police during the fiscal year 2011. A total of 8,882 suits were filed against the NYPD, a 10 percent increase from the prior year, according to a report by the city's comptroller's office.
MOST VICTIMS AFRICAN-AMERICAN
Chicago's McCarthy said the city's high murder rate, up 18 percent over last year as of December 16, was due to gang violence. Eighty percent of the homicides were gang-related and 80 percent of the victims were African-Americans, he said.
Blacks make up about 33 percent of the city's population, according to the 2011 estimate from the U.S. Census.
In August, six people were murdered in the city on a single weekend day, the highest one-day death toll of 2012.
McCarthy and other officials blame the surge on a splintering of the city's traditional gangs and the rise of new cliques and factions that are vying, often violently, for control of turf on the city's south and west sides.
The spike in homicides was especially dramatic in the first quarter of the year, when murders jumped 66 percent. So far in the fourth quarter, McCarthy said, the murder rate is down 15 percent compared with the same period last year. Police have arrested 7,000 more gang members this year than in 2011, he said.
"We're doing what we can do and it's working," McCarthy said.
After mounting criticism of Emanuel and McCarthy earlier this year, the police chief announced a shakeup of his department, transferring some police managers among districts to bolster the battle against gangs.
McCarthy said Chicago faces a larger illicit gun problem than either New York or Los Angeles, the second-largest U.S. city.
"In the first six months of the year, we seized three guns for every gun seized in Los Angeles and nine guns for every gun confiscated by the New York Police Department," McCarthy said.
"When people ask me, 'What's different about Chicago?' that's one of the things I tell them. We have a proliferation of illegal firearms," he said.
Illinois does not ban assault weapons and the high-capacity magazines that increase their killing potential, as do New York and California. Emanuel has called for tougher gun controls in the aftermath of the recent Connecticut school shooting.
STEALING APPLE IPHONES
While Chicago's murder rate was up, most other categories of crime were down this year from 2011, including criminal sexual assault, robbery, motor vehicle theft and burglary, according to police statistics.
In New York, the number of rapes, robberies, felony assaults and burglaries increased between 1 and 3.4 percent compared to 2011, according to police statistics as of earlier this month. Grand larceny increased by 9 percent, which police said was because of thefts of expensive Apple products such as iPhones and iPads.
Chicago was not alone in recording a spike in murders this year. The murder rate in Detroit through December 16 was up more than 12 percent over 2011 and at the highest level in nearly two decades, according to the city's police department.
As of Friday, St. Louis had recorded 113 homicides, the same number as 2011 with one weekend to go in 2012, police spokesman David Marzullo said. Across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois, 22 murders have been recorded this year in a town of only 27,000 people.
"The numbers just blow you away for a community as small as East St. Louis," said Brendan Kelly, state's attorney for St. Clair County, whose jurisdiction includes East St. Louis.
The East St. Louis murder rate is actually down from 30 in 2011 because of targeted patrolling of crime hot spots, Kelly said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Bross in St. Louis; Editing by Greg McCune and Leslie Gevirtz)