By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Chicago reported 17 percent fewer murders in the past year as the city flooded high-crime zones with police, although officials warned on Monday the gains should be seen as progress rather than as a success for America's third-largest city.
There have been 412 homicides in Chicago during 2013 as of Dec. 29, police said, or 85 fewer than during the same period last year, when the city recorded 497 murders.
The murder rate in the city is still higher this year than in the larger cities of New York, which recorded a record low of 333 murders, and Los Angeles, which had 246 murders so far this year.
"We're not there yet," Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told reporters on Monday. "Four hundred murders is nothing to celebrate, let's be clear. But the fact is, progress is being made."
In 2012, Chicago surpassed 500 homicides for the first time since 2008, damaging the city's reputation and putting pressure for change on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former top aide to U.S. President Barack Obama.
McCarthy said 2012 was an unusually bad year for homicides in Chicago, but the city has also seen progress from the more typical year of 2011, when the homicide total was 432.
The 2013 figure of 412 homicides also marks the lowest number of murders since 1965 and the lowest overall crime rate since 1972, according to the Chicago police.
Shooting incidents have fallen in Chicago in 2013 to 1,855, down 24 percent from 2,439 in 2012 and 16 percent from 2,215 in 2011, police said.
Police have blamed gang violence for many of the murders, as well as the proliferation of stolen guns. In response, they have assigned more police, including foot patrols, to violent neighborhoods to stem crime. McCarthy said district commanders are being held accountable for crime rates.
To continue progress, McCarthy said he wants to see tougher penalties for carrying illegal firearms, which he called a "gateway" crime to murder.
COLLABORATIVE CRIME FIGHTING
Next year, the city will invest $67 million in violence prevention and intervention programs for children and youth - up from $20 million in 2011 when Emanuel took office, according to Evelyn Diaz, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.
"We're working with significantly greater resources to try to change the game for young people living in mostly high crime neighborhoods," said Diaz.
James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, who has studied Chicago's homicide numbers over the years, said that different policing tactics may have helped, but it's not the only reason.
He said the 2012 surge was in part due to warmer-than-usual weather in the first part of that year. More urban homicides generally occur when temperatures climb, in part because more people congregate outdoors.
Fox noted that homicides have declined in Chicago and other large American cities from highs in the late 1980s and early 1990s - when murders were driven by the crack cocaine market and gang activity.
Diane Latiker, who runs a youth program called "Kids Off the Block" in the high-crime Roseland neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, said the young people she talks to feels the crime rate hasn't changed, though she is encouraged by the statistics.
"Everybody knows that this does not have just one solution," Latiker said. "The police can't do it by themselves, the churches can't, the schools can't - it has to be a collaboration of everybody." (Editing by Edith Honan and Ken Wills)