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Trump Always Calls Out Chicago, but City Closest to Mar-a-Lago Had Comparable Crime Rate in 2015

Chicago is the poster city for violent crime to President Trump, but he's got some mean streets right in his Florida backyard.

The city of West Palm Beach, which sits just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Trump's palatial Mar-a-Lago Resort — aka the Winter White House — on exclusive Palm Beach, had a violent crime rate in 2015 that was equal to that of the Windy City, according to federal crime records.

There were 23 homicides in a city of just 104,919 residents. And the rate of violent crime, which also includes rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults, was 9 for every 1,000 residents — the same as the far bigger Chicago, records show.

Image: The Mar-a-Lago Resort in West Palm Beach
President Donald Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Mar-a-Lago Resort in West Palm Beach, Florida on Feb. 11, 2017. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

While Trump regularly rails about crime in the city that is the hometown of his predecessor Barack Obama and birthplace of Hillary Clinton, he's not said a peep about the past troubles in the city that he drives through every time he comes to Florida.

That has not gone unnoticed by community activists like Ricky Aiken, who has been working hard with West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and the local police to keep local crime in check.

"Trump is a guy who lives over there," Aiken told NBC News, referring to Palm Beach. "If he is serious about making changes in the inner cities, he would be welcome. But people like him tend to avoid communities like mine."

Other than the 33-story Trump Plaza, which is the tallest building in town (and which he no longer owns) and the Trump International Golf Club (which he still owns), Trump has a relatively small public footprint in West Palm Beach.

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The Trump Foundation has kicked in $25,000 for the Palm Beach Zoo, $5,000 to the Palm Beach Opera, and $1,000 to the Pediatric Oncology Support Team Inc. — all located in the city, according to published reports.

And during one of the presidential debates with Clinton, Trump complained that he never gets credit for opening a golf course where there is "no discrimination against African-Americans, against Muslims, against nobody."

But Trump mistakenly said it was located in "Palm Beach, Florida," which he alternately described as a "tough community" and "probably the wealthiest community there is in the world."

For that, Trump was zinged by Palm Beach Post writer Barbara Marshall.

"The only gangs on the island are the legions of designer-clad matrons thronging Worth Avenue during the season," it read. "Nor is anyone likely to riot over injustice, unless the B&T runs out of gin for G&Ts."

(B&T refers to the exclusive Bath & Tennis Club, where the old money WASPs still run the show. G&T is short for gin and tonics.)

Florida News - Sept. 2, 2015
Inner City Innovators founder Ricky Aiken holds a bullhorn as he stands with Johnny Davis' nephew Derran Kittrell, 12, and other family members during a peace walk near Tamarind Avenue in West Palm Beach on Sept. 2, 2015. Davis, 19, was killed in broad-daylight shooting the previous week on 19th Street. Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post via Zuma

In the most recent available crime records, meaning the first six months of 2016, the city of Palm Beach recorded no homicides, no rapes, no robberies and just one aggravated assault.

Since the election, what little Trump has seen of West Palm Beach (WPB) has been through the windows of his fortified SUV on the 20 minute or so sprint from Palm Beach International Airport (which is actually located in WPB) to Mar-a-Lago.

"Kind of driving through," was how WPB Police Chief Sarah Mooney characterized Trump's impact on her city during a group telephone interview with an NBC reporter.

"He might come here to come to the performing arts center or have dinner at some of our marvelous restaurants," Mayor Muoio added. "That's about it."

Located about 70 miles north of Miami, West Palm Beach has long lived in the shadow of Palm Beach, the winter playground for generations of rich and famous folks. And most of the homicides happened in historically African-American neighborhoods like Coleman Park, which has sent workers streaming across the Flagler Bridge to serve the rich and famous for over a century.

Mayor Muoio, who like Trump hails from New York City, bristles at crimes comparisons to Chicago.

"We're a very different place from Chicago," she said. "We did have a spike in 2015 ... it was very upsetting to us all. Young black men shooting young black men."

Image: West Palm Beach police investigate an overnight shooting
West Palm Beach police investigate an overnight shooting on the 700 block of 5th Street that left a woman dead and a man hospitalized on July 20, 2015. Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post via Zuma

But unlike Chicago, where most of the violence is gang-related, what happened in West Palm Beach was fueled by "historic personal beefs," she said.

"We don't have traditional gangs, or ongoing gang activity," the mayor said. "Back in the day when guns were not as readily available there would be fights. Now, unfortunately, young people have access to guns and use them."

The Rev. Kevin Jones, who is a special assistant to the mayor, agreed.

"It's more guys on a different street or different neighborhood having issues with one another," Jones said. "It became very retaliatory."

Phil McCausland

Also, unlike Chicago, the homicide wave that washed over West Palm Beach didn't last. Last year, the number of murders dropped sharply from 23 in 2015 to 10 — although the total number of violent crimes climbed from 924 in 2015 to 955 last year, records show.

"Since 2007 our crime rate has steadily gone down," Muoio said. "There will always be peaks,spikes that happen. Overall there is a significant downward trend."

When kids started killing each other in the hot summer of 2015, Mooney said "we immediately upped our patrols in the area."

"The area where the spike was is very small," the chief said. "We would infiltrate those neighborhoods with our patrols."

Phil McCausland

They also got local religious leaders involved and were able to quickly identify some of the potential troublemakers.

"When one side of the neighborhood had an incident the other side would be next," said Mooney. "We tried to do almost home visit type interventions to keep things from getting worse. "

Jones was tasked with organizing marches through the affected communities so on nights when tensions ran high residents could be "part of taking it back."

"We would have big marches, two to three hundred people, where we walked the neighborhood and had a moment of silence," Jones said.

Even before the outburst of mayhem in 2015 the city was working hard to integrate its traditionally white male police force, including launching an explorer program designed to get minority kids interested in careers as police officers.

"We're trying to grow our own cops," Mooney said, adding that two former explorers are due to graduate soon from the police academy.

John Smykla, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University, said the West Palm Beach police deserve credit for trying out new things like body cameras and for making an extra effort to reach out to minority communities.

"They're very community-centric," he said. "They are willing to innovate and try new things. The result is that citizen complaints are down ... on both sides of the fence."

Mayoral spokeswoman Kathleen Walter said West Palm Beach has its problems, but so do a lot of cities. And the rest of the county has been grappling with a heroin epidemic that has been chronicled by The Palm Beach Post.

"Are we getting some attention because we have a famous neighbor? For sure," she said. "But this has always been an alluring community and I think there are a lot of residents here who are happy."

Despite all these efforts, Aiken said there are still places in town where it gets dangerous after dark.

"Things are better but we're not there yet," said Aiken. "A lot of kids grow up in West Palm Beach thinking that crime is kind of what you are expected to do."

Aiken would know — he was one of them. The son of an absent father and drug-addicted mother, he was raised by an alcoholic grandmother in the Dunbar Village housing project, which became infamous in 2007 when up to 10 men raped a 35-year-old woman and forced her to perform sex acts on her 12-year-old son.

Aiken said he was following in the footsteps of his drug-dealing older brothers when fate in the form of an Urban Youth Impact summer program — and a married couple that adopted him — set him on a different path.

Now Aiken runs Inner City Innovators, which helps young black men break out of the cycle of poverty and crime.

"They don't have role models in the community," he said. "There are no father figures."

And many of them, he said, are so trapped in their neighborhoods they've never even been to the ritzy Palm Beach.

"I talk to people all the time who would never cross the bridge out of fear of being stopped, arrested," he said. "It's never happened to me, but I understand that fear."

Aiken said on the rare occasions when he ventures into Trump's neighborhood, he goes to look at the Atlantic Ocean and to collect his thoughts.

"It's a different world over there," he said.