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.

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Chicago's activist priest: Father Michael Pfleger
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Chicago's activist priest: Father Michael Pfleger

Father Michael Pfleger (3rd R) marches through the streets of a South Side neighborhood during a weekly night-time peace demonstration in Chicago, Illinois, September 16, 2016. 

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger speaks with participants in a weekly night-time peace march through the streets of a South Side neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois, September 16, 2016. 

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger is reflected in a mirror as he receives a hug from a parishioner as he arrives for the start of his Sunday Service at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 4, 2016. Picture taken December 4, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger (3rd L) and director Spike Lee (4th L) take part in a prayer circle with the cast of Lee's new movie "Chi-Raq" during a mass at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, Illinois, United States, November 22, 2015. A character in Lee's movie is based on Pfleger, a controversial Catholic priest on Chicago's south side and is played by John Cusack.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger prays during a Sunday Service at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 4, 2016. 

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger hugs a parishioner after a Sunday Service at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 4, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger attends a press conference to discuss the upcoming film 'Chiraq' at St. Sabina Church on May 14, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

(Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

A protestor takes part in a weekly night-time peace march through the streets of a South Side neighborhood organized by Father Michael Pfleger in Chicago, Illinois, September 16, 2016. Picture taken September 16, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

George Willborn, Director Spike Lee, Nick Cannon, Reverend Al Sharpton, and Father Michael Pfleger lead a anti-gun violence rally following the 'CHI-RAQ' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on December 1, 2015, in New York City.

(Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

Father Michael Pfleger takes part in a mass at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, Illinois, United States, November 22, 2015. A character in Spike Lee's new movie "Chi-Raq" is based on Pfleger, a controversial Catholic priest on Chicago's south side and is played by John Cusack.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger attends the Stop Bad Apple Gun Dealers Protest at Chuck's Gun Shop on June 6, 2015 in Riverdale, Illinois. 

(Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence)

Father Michael Pfleger listens to remarks during a mass at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago, Illinois, United States, November 22, 2015. A character in Spike Lee's new movie "Chi-Raq" is based on Pfleger, a controversial Catholic priest on Chicago's south side, and is played by John Cusack.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

Father Michael Pfleger (C) holds hands in prayer with attendees at Saint Sabina Church before taking part in a weekly night-time peace march through the streets of a South Side neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. September 16, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

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"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.

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.

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