Chicago, America's murder capital

Chicago's gun violence is soaring amid a backdrop of poverty and an embattled police force, with homicides this year on track to hit their highest level since 1997.

CHICAGO (REUTERS) - It's been a deadly year in Chicago.

With more than 500 murders so far, the city is on track to hit its highest level of homicides since 1997.

"Community, I need your help! They killed my baby out here in this alley! I need somebody, you know something! Please come forward! They took my life!" said a mother who lost her 15-year-old son to gun violence.

The spike in violence has city officials and activists scrambling to find solutions.

"This is a war. This is a state of emergency. It is unacceptable. There is too much blood in the streets," said Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin.

Boykin says the root cause is poverty.

Just miles from Chicago's gleaming skyscrapers lie some of the city's most violent neighbourhoods, marred by drugs, gangs and easy access to guns.

"I feel at risk just by coming outside, just by me waking up and putting on my clothes and coming out my front door, I'm at risk" said Derrick Houston, a resident of Chicago's Austin neighbourhood.

But reducing the risk is proving difficult, as mistrust of police is rampant and a high number of murder cases go unsolved.

Chicago police are  also under federal investigation over use of lethal force.

Police Union boss Dean Angelo says the public scrutiny is largely unfair.

"A lot of the people that are pushing the police to reform or the police accountability don't realise what goes on in some of the, you know, alleys or the inner city neighbourhoods of Chicago."
And further complicating the job.

With their leaders locked up, the large gangs police once dealt with have disintegrated, leaving hundreds of smaller "cliques" or "crews" roaming the streets.

Tio Hardiman of the organization, Violence Interrupters, calls 2016 'the year of the renegade'.

"A lot of young guys feel they can just shoot people and harm people and they don't have to answer to nobody, because you don't have these gang leaders anymore and the violence is all over the place" said Hardiman.

It's a dilemma authorities are trying to address...but with the death toll rising, Chicago appears stuck with its unwanted reputation as America's murder capital.