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March murder rate in Chicago down 69% over 2012, but mob attacks are focus

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Updated: May 3, 2013 6:14AM

Basking in the glow of a 69 percent drop in Chicago’s March murder rate, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy were confronted by a troubling reality: the return of downtown mob attacks that seem to be turning into a rite of spring.

An outbreak of wildings on North Michigan Avenue and a separate attack on a CTA Red Line train culminated in the arrest of 25 juveniles and three adults on a sunny and warm Saturday that drew the usual crowds to the Magnificent Mile.

Seventeen of the arrests were made around 6 p.m. near Chicago and Michigan after a mob of young people started fighting among themselves, bumping into bystanders and blocking sidewalks and traffic.

About the same time, another group of juveniles who had arranged to meet on Twitter attacked several women aboard a CTA Red Line train, possibly armed with knives, box-cutters and padlocks. One of the victims reported being beaten and having her hair pulled and her purse snatched, prompting police to make 11 arrests.

In an email to his constituents, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) described Saturday’s incident as “very disturbing” and said it was “orchestrated” on Facebook and Twitter involving 400 young people. It required police to summon additional resources to augment an original group of 50 officers to diffuse the “volatile” situation, the alderman said.

Reilly said he planned to meet with police officials this week to press for “additional, high-visibility resources” for downtown commercial corridors during warm weather months, including foot and bike patrols and a beefed-up CTA detail.

“I am most concerned about Saturday’s incident — not only because I live just a few blocks away but because worry for the Central Business District has become a perennial concern for downtown residents and businesses. It’s time Chicago commits to a permanent solution,” Reilly wrote.

On Monday, the downtown attacks marred a news conference called to tout the lowest number of March murders in Chicago since 1959.

McCarthy bristled when asked what he planned to do about this “phenomenon of organized, intentional” attacks by young people.

“They’re not organized. If they were organized, it would be an entirely different issue,” McCarthy said.

“Nice weather. A lot of people go downtown. And those kids have every right to go downtown. The behavior that they engage in — if it’s illegal, they will be arrested quickly and prosecuted. And that’s how we’re gonna handle it. ... The strategy downtown is high-profile, visibility and enforcement where appropriate.”

He added, “We were on top of it. ... There were no assaults, robberies or property damage that was reported. These were two groups of people who were fighting. The officers were there. They dispersed it immediately. We took appropriate action and made arrests. There was a separate incident that we do not believe was related to any of what we just talked about. There was a robbery on the CTA. ... We locked up 11 people for that robbery.”

Last year, downtown attacks of random victims — including two doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital — prompted Chicago’s convention and tourism chief to say meeting planners were getting nervous about whether Chicago was a safe place to visit.

Emanuel was asked Monday whether he was concerned about the impact of the latest attacks. He noted that tourism, conventions and hotel occupancy are all up compared with a year ago.

“People will take note of the statistics. A 69 percent drop in homicides will also say something. And since I deal a lot with the tourism and convention business, a lot of people always mention to me about the presence on Michigan Avenue of the police force — the visible presence they have. Every night, there’s additional officers in that area to give a level of security and safety,” the mayor said, noting the “quick response” to both the Michigan Avenue and CTA incidents.

Two years ago, Chicago Police officers, some of them undercover, were stationed at downtown CTA stations and other “choke points” to stop large groups of unruly young people intent on causing trouble.

The Easter weekend incidents give new impetus to a plan by Reilly to have moonlighting, uniformed police officers paid for by local merchants.

Reilly wants to let local chambers of commerce, business improvement districts and “special service area” taxing districts hire off-duty Chicago Police officers to supplement regular police patrols.

Currently, Chicago Police officers are permitted to wear their uniforms only when they are working for the city or moonlighting for the CTA or Navy Pier.

Reilly’s ordinance would allow off-duty officers to wear their uniforms while being paid $30 an hour by local businesses to work a minimum of six-hour shifts.

The arrangement would be open to commercial strips across the city. But it’s clearly timed to prevent a spring and summer rerun of the ugly mob attacks.

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