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"Undeclared war:" Chicago grapples with historic gun violence

CHICAGO -- As a deadly summer comes to an end in Chicago, advocates there say gun violence is reaching a crisis level – and they’re renewing the call to address the “undeclared war” that’s left more than 500 dead so far this year.

Homicides in 2016 have already climbed to 522,  according to data analyzed by the Chicago Tribune – surpassing the total for all of last year, 491, with nearly four months until the end the year. More than 3,000 have been shot in all. And August was the city’s deadliest month in nearly two decades, with 93 reportedly killed, according to the Tribune.

Tambrasha Hudson is comforted as she joins demonstrators protesting the shooting death of her son 16-year-old Pierre Loury near the location where he was killed on April 12, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Police have said Loury took off running when the vehicle he was in was pulled over by police because it matched the description of a vehicle used in an earlier drive-by shooting. The chase, according to police, ended with an “armed confrontation.” Scott Olson/Getty Images

Though Chicago has lower population-based murder rates than some smaller U.S. cities, including Detroit and St. Louis, it ranks as the deadliest among cities with more than a million residents. In 2016, it’s recorded more murders and shooting victims than New York City and Los Angeles combined.

Late last month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition said Chicago was in a state of “undeclared war,” calling the August homicide numbers “mind-boggling” and “spirit-numbing.”  

“We cannot just throw up our hands and go about business as usual,” Jackson said in a statement. “We must not surrender or accept this as the norm.”

Holiday weekends over the warm summer months tend to be particularly violent, and Labor Day weekend was no exception – 65 people were shot, 13 fatally, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune’s statistics include killings that aren’t reflected in official homicide numbers released by the Chicago Police Department, the paper reports, such as killings on expressways, police-involved shootings, other justifiable homicides or death investigations that could later be reclassified as homicides.

Pam Bosley lost her 18-year-old son Terrell to gun violence in Chicago in 2006. When one of her surviving sons – now also 18 -- asked if he could come home for a visit from college over the Labor Day weekend, she was afraid to say yes.

Bosley said her youngest son, a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, outside St. Louis, should be able to visit his hometown for the weekend without fear for his safety. But especially after the murder of her eldest son – which remains unsolved -- she couldn’t help but worry. Bosley said her son did come home for the weekend, but under tight restrictions -- she said she was so nervous she drove him whenever he needed to leave the house and didn’t allow him to sit outside on the porch.

“No mother ever wants to plan on burying her child,” said Bosley, who founded the group Purpose over Pain, which supports parents of murdered children and advocates for stricter gun control. “I don’t want to have to bury two.”

She told Crimesider some in her community pass off the violence as just the way things are in the city. But that’s not how she sees it.

“It doesn’t seem like people are enraged about it in our community,” Bosley said. “They think it’s a way of life – but that’s not the way we should live.”

Bosley and other advocates believe the community is worth fighting for – and that the battle against gun violence can be won. But factors contributing to the spike in gun violence are many and complex – unemployment, poverty, a lack of economic re-investment in certain neighborhoods, a struggling education system and an influx of illegal guns. The neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the violence are communities that grapple with these issues the most, advocates say.

“Most of the gun violence is going to run in very high poverty areas with very little pathways or opportunities for people to get out and operate in legal economies,” Shari Runner, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, told Crimesider. The primary economies in those neighborhoods “are extremely high risk and associated with the guns and drugs that are flooding into these communities,” she said.

Many contributing factors are outside of law enforcement’s capacity to address – but not all. Community advocates emphasize the importance of community policing, a practice that’s been heralded in cities across the country as a way to strengthen law enforcement’s relationship with communities they serve, but one they say is marginalized and under-resourced in Chicago.

The practice is an important way to bridge the gulf between cops and the community, in addition to being an essential tool in crime-fighting as Chicago sees historic levels of gun violence, said Lori Lightfoot, who was appointed president of the Chicago Police Board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 and chaired the Police Accountability Task Force.

But “the relationship between the police department and many communities [in Chicago], particularly communities of color, is broken, fractured, and there’s not a significant amount of trust,” Lightfoot said.

That’s a big problem, according to Lightfoot, because police can’t effectively fight crime when the community doesn’t feel safe coming forward with information that could help solve a crime.

A report summarizing the task force’s findings, released in April, blasted the department’s community policing program, Community Alternative Policing Strategy (“CAPS”) as “significantly damaged after years of neglect.” It also found the community’s lack of trust in the department to be justified, citing evidence that people of color, particularly African-Americans, “have had disproportionately negative experiences with the police over an extended period of time.”

Some community members reported being stopped without justification, verbally or physically abused, or arrested and detained without counsel. The report said the deaths of numerous men and women at the hands of police became an important rallying cry for the community. And the release of a video showing a Chicago police officer fatally shooting teen Laquan McDonald became the “tipping point for long-simmering community anger.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel established the police accountability task force in December following public outcry over the release of the Laquan McDonald video, the same day he fired police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. Also in December, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would launch a civil pattern and practice investigation to determine whether there are “systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law by officers of CPD.” 

With the federal investigation on-going, the task force made a series of recommendations to rebuild trust. Those recommendations included replacing the long-criticized Independent Police Review Authority with a new civilian investigative agency to probe officer-involved shootings and allegations of police misconduct, a reform Emanuel recently adopted.

“My goal is to bring safety to every community through building trust in our police department,” Emanuel wrote in a May op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. “That requires creating a new system for police accountability and oversight.”

But the department still has a long way to go toward reform, Lightfoot said, especially when it comes to community policing.

She said the practice has to be embraced throughout the department from the top down – not viewed as something to get to after the crime-fighting’s done, “as if one doesn’t go with the other.”

“Community policing at its core is respectful engagement between the police and the community they serve, and recognizing that the community has value to bring to the table in that relationship,” Lightfoot said. “If you don’t tend to that relationship, it’s going to wither on the vine, and unfortunately that’s what’s happened in Chicago.”

Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said he recognizes that the department’s relationship with the community is fractured. They’re working towards improving community policing under new superintendent Eddie Johnson,  a 27-year Chicago police veteran who was appointed interim superintendent by Emanuel in March.

Johnson, who is black, grew up in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood and has deep roots in Chicago. His appointment was supported by the city council’s Latino and black caucuses.

“He lives in the African-American community, he’s very close to the African-American community, and he’s done a lot in the four months he’s been here to shift the way CPD thinks about police-community relations,” Guglielmi said.

He said Johnson is opening lines of communication between police and community advocates, and is challenging officers to “get out of their cars and engage with citizens as much as possible,” including by increasing foot and bike patrols.

Guglielmi said police are also focusing on predicting who is contributing to the majority of the gun violence and working to disrupt gang operations.

Police in Chicago say many of those alleged to be trigger pullers have been previously accused in gun crimes, and they point to a need for state sentencing reform to keep repeat offenders off the streets. Guglielmi cited a University of Chicago Crime Lab study​ that found 40 percent of people arrested for murder in Chicago last year had previous arrests for gun crimes.

“That’s a staggering statistic,” Guglielmi said.

Guglielmi said the recent shooting of Nykea Aldridge​ only amplifies the need to put a wedge in the “revolving door” of gun offenders being released back into the streets, either on bail while awaiting trial or after serving only a portion of their sentences.

Aldridge, a 32-year-old mother of four who is the cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, was gunned down Aug. 23 as she was pushing a baby stroller.​ She was an innocent bystander who was caught in gang crossfire. Police have arrested two brothers in the shooting, Derren Sorrells, 22, and his older brother, 26-year-old Darwin – both of whom were on parole. Darwin Sorrells was sentenced to six years in prison in 2013 for receiving, possessing or selling a stolen vehicle and for unlawful use or possession of a firearm by a felon, according to online corrections records.

He served half that time before he was paroled.

Nykea Aldridge. Provided to WBBM-TV

“In Chicago, there really is a lack of accountability for those engaged in gun crime,” Guglielmi said.

And Guglielmi said police have identified many of the repeat offenders driving a large portion of the city’s gun crime through what his department coins the “Strategic Subject List.” Using an algorithm that analyzes factors like gang affiliations, criminal records, past shootings and previous police contact, the list identifies those most likely to be involved in gun crime, either as a shooter or a victim, according to CBS Chicago.

There are about 1,400 people on the list, Guglielmi said, and police say the algorithm does not take race, gender, ethnicity, or geography into account. The Strategic Subject list helps officials determine who is at the greatest need for outreach and attempt to head off gun violence before it occurs, but it also helps police target those who are heavily involved in gang operations. Several sweeps over the past month targeted more than 200 offenders, the majority of whom were on the Strategic Subject List.

About 100 were taken into custody, Guglielmi said.

“Basically it boils down to, with our arrest practices, we stopped fishing with a net and we’re fishing with a spear,” Guglielmi said. “We’re really going after those individuals that drive gun violence in Chicago.”

But Guglielmi and advocates agree that gun violence isn’t a problem the department can “arrest its way out of.” When Aldridge was shot, her cousin Wade’s tweet using the hashtag #EnoughisEnough became a community rallying cry that addressing the violence is an urgent and immediate need. Bosley called on Emanuel to step up his efforts to address the bloodshed.

“I need to see more leadership – not a lot of talk, but a lot of action,” Bosley says.

Last month, Bosley was among hundreds of advocates that included Rev. Michael Pfleger who organized a city march and called on city leaders to declare a state of emergency and request federal intervention. Jackson called on the White House to convene conferences on violence and poverty, and pointed to a need for reinvestment in the economic infrastructure of inner-city communities to help combat the problem.

Whatever the approach, Lightfoot said, it will require a push from a cross-section of the community in addition to police reform.

“It’s got to be an all hands on deck, coordinated effort to significantly move the needle,” Lightfoot said.

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