Activist Chicago priest reflects on city's 'shameful' violent year

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A longtime activist Chicago priest who has marched in protests, attended vigils and delivered sermons decrying violence in the city's most deadly year in nearly two decades, fears the surge in murders could continue into 2017.

Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church on Chicago's predominantly black South Side where many of the more than 700 murders occurred, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that police were struggling to rebuild trust with people as guns were also flowing onto the streets.

"This year is through the roof," Pfleger, 67, said. "The numbers are shameful," he added. "They should be embarrassing to us and they should make us outraged."

There have been 711 murders in the third largest city in the United States so far in 2016, the Chicago Police Department said, a number not seen since 1997 when 761 were murdered, and more than Los Angeles and New York combined reported this year. Both cities have considerably higher populations than Chicago's 2.7 million residents.

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Chicago's police department has undertaken a series of reforms following the shooting death of a black teenager by a white officer and is under federal investigation to determine whether the department has systematically violated constitutional rights.

Pfleger said the number of guns in the city had increased dramatically over the past 20 years, contributing to the large death toll.

"You have more guns now than we have ever had. America, whether we want to admit it or not, has made them part of our wardrobe," the priest said.

The number of guns recovered for the year through November was nearly 8,000, up 20 percent from a year ago, while gun-related arrests were up 8 percent, police said.

"The levels of violence we have seen this year in some of our communities is absolutely unacceptable," police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement at the beginning of December.

Much of Chicago's violence occurs on its poverty stricken west and south sides.