Chicago police investigate the scene of a shooting in June where a 12-year-old girl died hours after attending a cousin’s graduation. She was apparently an unintended victim of gunfire from a nearby party. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)

Barely 20 hours after a gang leader was assassinated early this month on a city street, a toddler was shot and critically injured while sitting in an SUV with his mother and grandmother. It was just the latest spasm of bloodshed in advance of a mayoral election that many people say could redefine Chicago’s identity and help determine its future.

For much of the campaign, candidates and residents alike have often described a city wracked by gun violence. They point to a wave of carjackings and shootings downtown and in better-off neighborhoods as proof that the violence has seeped out of the South and West sides, where the vast majority of homicides occur, to affect all of Chicago.

“There’s no place we can call safe,” said former police superintendent Garry McCarthy, one of more than a dozen people running to succeed two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel in next week’s election.

There’s also no unanimity on solutions, though many — especially African Americans and Latinos — are demanding that the city’s next leader overhaul its long-troubled police force. Candidates have seemed to tread a fine line between supporting the department and responding to communities that harbor a deep distrust of law enforcement.

“You can’t solve it just on the policing side — that we all know,” said Bill Daley, the son and brother of two previous Chicago mayors, who calls police reform the “single biggest issue” facing the city. “The real challenge is how you make the city more inclusive.”

The Crime Lab at the University of Chicago has documented violence as a direct reason for the exodus of more than 200,000 black residents since 2000. And while homicides fell in 2018 compared with 2017 and 2016, when 762 people were killed and more than 4,000 shot, every new spate of violence only reinforces fears.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, accompanied by Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, talks to reporters after a wave of violence in early August. In less than 72 hours, at least 11 people were killed and about 70 wounded. (Teresa Crawford/AP)

“It’s a perverse cycle,” said Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization on the South Side. Gunfire is not the only factor, of course; Malone points to a lack of affordable housing and shuttered schools. “As the population leaves, the conditions get worse. We’re running toward an abyss.”

Across the political spectrum — from Daley, a former White House chief of staff and Commerce secretary in the Obama administration, to Nigerian American community organizer Amara Enyia, endorsed by Chance the Rapper — the 10 men and four women vying to be mayor have pledged to address root causes of violence: poverty and segregated neighborhoods, too few jobs in lower-income areas and the disproportionate incarceration of African American men.

At a forum last month at Trinity United Church of Christ, the South Side church where the Obamas once worshiped, several candidates also focused on the availability of guns. They’re “flying around these streets like hot cakes,” said former school board chair Gery Chico, who has threatened to sue Wisconsin and Indiana over gun sales to Chicagoans without background checks.

But during that and the seemingly endless succession of mayoral debates and events this winter, the discussion inevitably returned to the city’s police force.

Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia speaks at City Hall in October. Fourteen people are on the ballot in next week’s election. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Chicago has struggled for years with allegations of police brutality and racism. Jon Burge, a former detective and commander, was convicted in 2010 on federal charges of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about widespread abuse and torture of black suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.

The watershed moment came just a few years ago, however, with the release of video showing officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting teen Laquan McDonald 16 times as he walked down a street on the Southwest Side. McDonald’s 2014 death sparked major demonstrations and a federal investigation of the department. The probe, concluded shortly before President Barack Obama left office, identified a pattern of excessive force and violations of residents’ constitutional rights and resulted in a consent decree to require reforms.

After the decree was derailed by the Trump administration, the Illinois attorney general and Emanuel’s administration hammered out their own proposed consent decree. It’s unclear whether the next mayor will implement or revise it.

It’s equally uncertain whether whoever is elected will retain Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, a onetime patrol officer who rose through the ranks and has held the top job since Emanuel fired McCarthy in 2015 after video of McDonald’s killing was released. The candidates also have debated whether to legalize marijuana, eliminate a controversial gang database and support a proposed $95 million police training academy. Daley, one of the few candidates in favor of the academy, is championing a new $50 million violence prevention department, too.

Lori Lightfoot, the former federal prosecutor appointed by Emanuel to oversee police reform, is among the candidates who say more police need to work in the neighborhoods where they live.

“We have a detective corps that is predominantly white, that isn’t embedded in the neighborhoods, that don’t have any relationship with people and who come in on somebody’s worst day,” she noted recently. “And then they’re expected to win hearts and minds and get good cooperation, which is entirely unrealistic.”

A campaign known as #NoCop­Academy has been a focal point for anti-police sentiment, particularly in the wake of the acquittal of officers charged with covering up the circumstances of McDonald’s death. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced in January to 81 months in prison.

“In the very same week, three officers accused of covering up Laquan McDonald’s murder were found innocent, Jason Van Dyke got 81 months, and black and brown young men get longer sentences than that for drug stuff,” said candidate Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, who has promoted her record on criminal justice reforms such as expungement of juvenile records and reduction of cash bail.

The harsh spotlight is likely to remain, regardless of the election’s outcome. Police solve about one in six homicides, a rate far below the national average. It’s not the only chilling statistic related to the challenges here.

The Justice Department’s 2017 investigation found that the city’s rate of officer suicide is 60 percent higher than the national average. In the past six months, five Chicago police officers have killed themselves.

Corruption has dominated the headlines here in recent weeks, with the City Council’s longest-serving alderman being charged with attempted extortion thanks in part to another alderman secretly recording their conversations over two years for the FBI. Both candidates and community leaders say Chicago’s infamous patronage politics lay the groundwork for violence and troubled law enforcement.

“You can’t have a legitimate police force under an illegitimate government,” McCarthy said. “We call it the Chicago Way. It’s all about the hookup — you can’t do anything unless you have a quote, unquote ‘guy.’ We accept that about how life is here.”

No one is expected to get more than 50 percent of the vote in next week’s election, which means the top two candidates will face each other in an April mayoral runoff.

The latest polls showed at least a quarter of voters still undecided. Much may depend on turnout by infrequent and new voters, including those mobilized by the debate around police reform and the diverse field of candidates — six of whom are African Americans.

First-time voter Destiny Harris, 18, is a poet and activist with the #NoCopAcademy movement who lives on the West Side.

“Depending on who becomes mayor, my life will be much different,” she said. “This isn’t just any mayoral race. This is a big race. It’s a huge deal.”