By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago's police superintendent said on Friday the number of homicides had fallen to the lowest level in five decades so far this year as he sought to dispel the notion that America's third-largest city reigns as the nation's murder capital.
Superintendent Garry McCarthy, appearing at a City Council committee hearing, said crime has been dropping in recent years in Chicago. He also disputed allegations that his police department has been manipulating crime statistics to make it seem like Chicago is safer than it really is.
"We have about one-third less crime in this city over the last three years. We've got to do something about the perception," McCarthy said, adding that it can take a long time for people in crime-ridden neighborhoods to feel like crime truly has declined.
McCarthy told council members that homicides so far in 2014 were down 7 percent from the same period last year, representing the lowest number for the period since 1963. The latest data on the police website listed 203 murders through July 20 compared with 215 in the same period last year.
The Chicago metropolitan area does not have the highest homicide rate per capita in the United States - New Orleans and Detroit are higher, for example. But it has recorded the highest total number of homicides in recent years.
Chicago, a city of 2.7 million, reported 414 murders in 2013, down from 503 in 2012.
McCarthy defended police in the wake of an audit by the Chicago Inspector General's office this year that showed that police had undercounted some crimes in 2012 by counting as a single crime some incidents that actually had multiple victims.
In addition, Chicago magazine in April published an investigation that it said showed that some of the drop in homicides last year was due to reclassifying them as "noncriminal deaths" rather than homicides.
In a television interview before the committee hearing, McCarthy said it was not true that police were skewing the numbers. "Absolutely not, it's nonsense," he said.
As in most U.S. cities, homicides in Chicago are way down from the 1990s, when they often topped 900 a year. But weekends still are marred by multiple shooting deaths, and children are routinely caught in the crossfire, typified by an 11-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet at a slumber party in July.
In a sign of the city's obsession with crime, the Chicago Sun-Times carries a "shooting tracker" on summer weekends, mapping every incident of gunfire. The newspaper also runs a "homicide watch" with details on every murder in the city.
A murder and an attempted murder on Thursday illustrated two of the city's crime trends: violence between gangs and illegal guns.
A 34-year-old man was fatally shot on Thursday in the Humboldt neighborhood just six days after his 13-year-old son was shot dead a few blocks away in a drive-by shooting that left six other teenagers and young men wounded. Both the father and son were associated with gangs, police sources said.
Also on Thursday, a disgruntled business executive shot his boss in the head and stomach in a downtown office building then killed himself with his gun. His victim was hospitalized on Friday in critical condition. McCarthy said the shooter did not have a gun owner's ID and the weapon was probably illegal.
One of McCarthy's biggest drives in his three years as superintendent has been to crack down on illegal weapons, the majority of which come from out of state, often from places with looser gun-purchasing rules than those in Chicago. Police have seized more than 3,900 illegal firearms in 2014.
"There's too many guns coming in, too little punishment going out," McCarthy said.
(Editing by Will Dunham)