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A bloody Easter in Chicago ushers in new federal crime unit

On the heels of yet another ultra-violent weekend in Chicago, the U.S. Attorney's Office announces the launch of a new specialized crime unit.
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy (C) holds a press conference, Sept. 24, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy (C) holds a press conference, Sept. 24, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.

A bloody Easter weekend in Chicago has shaken up what had been months of steady declines in gun violence, ushering in the city’s warm season with a bang.

Weekend violence left nine dead and at least 35 wounded, including six children, an escalation that caused federal authorities to intervene Monday. The youngest of the children injured by gunfire included an 11-year-old girl who was shot while leaving a park with a group of friends on Sunday evening. 

The girl, a fifth grader identified by local newspapers as Tymisha Washington, was struck by two bullets just hours after attending church services and eating Easter dinner with her family.

A day after the shootings, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy offered the obligatory, if not wearied, response:

“We’re all tired of it,” McCarthy told NBC Chicago on Monday afternoon, lamenting the lack of teeth behind the state’s gun laws, which have allowed an untold number of illegal weapons to flow into Chicago from around less restrictive cities across the state. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have the same conversation that we always have.”

Late last year, McCarthy was hopeful that steep drops in gun violence and murders could be sustained with new police tactics and bolstered communication with stakeholders in the communities most affected by shootings. He assigned whole cadres of officers to walking beats, effectively removing the buffer of police cruisers from between the police and the people they are sworn to serve.

But if this most recent spate of violence is any indication, the city will likely redouble its efforts to maintain the steep declines the city had seen following a nation-leading murder tally in 2012.

“This doesn’t wipe out the progress that we’ve made, but it certainly doesn’t do us any good,” McCarthy said Monday. “I can’t sit here and tell you that we are doing that much better when we have a weekend like we just had. It’s just the facts. So we’re going to keep doing what we are doing, which is having an impact on what’s happening.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Monday that it will step up its efforts to diminish violent crime in the city, in the form of a specialized new unit staffed by more than a dozen prosecutors tasked with using federal law as a crime-fighting weapon.

"This is putting a group of talented attorneys together and telling them that their mission is to help the city and the district tamp down violent crime ... and to use all the tools and strategies at their disposal that are going accomplish that mission," Randall Samborn, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, told The Chicago Tribune.

The new unit, The Violent Crimes section, launched earlier this month and boasts 16 prosecutors on staff. The unit was formed as part of a restructuring of the U.S. Attorney’s Chicago office, which consists of 160 prosecutors and enjoys a budget of nearly $35 million. Members of the unit were pulled from the larger narcotics and gang unit.

McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have come under pressure to rein in rampant crime in the city. And more recent statistics that show declines in crime have come under scrutiny. Critics suggest that investigators and the medical examiner have mis-categorized the causes of some deaths, manipulating the murder numbers.

Chicago Magazine this month dives into “The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates,” citing a dramatic dip in major crime that began in 2011, the year that McCarthy came into office, partly because of the way certain crimes are being categorized.

Regardless of the numbers, the police department was cautiously optimistic that a combination of police work and community engagement was having some positive impact on gun crimes.

“It’s a day by day, minute by minute grind,” McCarthy told msnbc late last year, “and we just have to keep winning more than we are losing.”

But on Monday, when asked about the frustration behind what seems to be a recurring theme of two steps forward, and then fours steps back on the heels of uber-violent outbreaks, McCarthy pointed squarely to the state’s lawmakers:

“The problem is we are drinking from a fire hose. More guns than any city in the country every single year and it can be dealt with, it can be dealt with easily,” he said, calling for laws that require gun owners to report the loss, theft or transfer of all firearms, a prime way in which criminals get their hands on guns. He also called for tough prosecution of people caught with guns and “real jail time” for caught with illegal fire arms.

“We need help with the gun laws, because the national averages for gun violence, we are way above it as far as murder by gunshot goes,” he said. “So until such time as we stem the flow of those guns coming into the city and people start going to jail for it, we can make progress, which we’ve made, but we’re not going to fix this problem without some help from Springfield.”