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As gang warfare escalates in Chicago, can Facebook be a help?

At least 6 of the 10 homicides in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend are linked to gangs, police say. City officials on Tuesday laid out a strategy that includes tracking known gang members on Facebook and Twitter.

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At least 200 homicides took place in Chicago since the first of the year, a jump from the 134 in 2011 during the same period. Police data show that shootings are also up 14 percent over last year: 851 so far in 2012 compared with 747 in 2011 through late May.

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Comparisons of homicide statistics at midyear are often problematic, because they don't account for factors such as weather, says Fox. Comparing current year data with a previous year's data can also be misleading, especially if the previous year reflected a dip in the rate of violence.

Assessing whether Chicago's new strategies are working is a long-term prospect, mostly because homicide statistics are prone to short-term variability, says Mr. Pollack.

“There are going to be periodic fluctuations in homicides that don’t really tell us these policies are working or not. The question will be the quality of execution and whether the size or complexity of Chicago means some of these strategies have to be modified to fit our conditions,” Pollack says. “We have to approach this in the long run rather than the short run.”

Chicago has developed a national reputation for testing new ways to combat gang violence. CeaseFire, the Chicago-based organization known for efforts to prevent gang violence using data and on-the-ground intervention, expanded into New Orleans earlier this year after officials there asked it to try to help reduce the soaring homicide rate.

Two summers ago, the Chicago Police Department stirred controversy by warning local gang leaders that certain gang-sanctioned actions, such as the shooting of rival gang members, would result in prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law that is broad in how it applies criminal penalties to and civil legal action against criminal organizations, not just murder charges against the actual gunman.

The prevention efforts announced Tuesday are laudable, says Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University here, but the public needs to understand homicide numbers will not retreat until there is a comprehensive effort to treat the problem as a public health issue.

“The police can do very little overall in making any inroads in regards to homicides in the city. They would have to be on every corner and every house to make a significant impact. That doesn’t mean the police should put their hands up in the air and do nothing, but we have to change the quality of life in those communities,” Mr. Lurigio says.

He suggests that city officials work more diligently over time with churches, local businesses, and community leaders to create economic alternatives to the drug trade in certain neighborhoods.

“The factors that give rise to high homicide rates come from deeply rooted problems in those neighborhoods that the police cannot solve,” Lurigio says.

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