Chicago Tribune Youth Violence Essay

On his way to school, the ninth-grader heard the first gunshot from a distance.

He figured it was meant for him. So he ran.

With the sound of gunfire trailing him, he made his way down the street, through an alley and to the back door of the weathered two-flat where he lives.

"I heard shots coming toward me. I didn't see any faces. I just heard 'ping, ping, ping,'" he recalled while casually browsing pictures on his cellphone.

"All the time, I was thinking, 'I want to get home.' Then I checked my body to see if I was wet (with blood) anywhere."

As the city tries to grapple with the carnage that claimed 786 lives last year, according to data collected by the Tribune, it is worth considering what life is like for a young man coming of age in one of the city's poorest and most besieged communities.

This is a story of a teenager growing up in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood and trying to navigate the landscape of gangs and crime at a time when the city's gun violence is at its highest since the 1990s drug wars. The Tribune is not naming the 15-year-old because he is a minor.

In his North Lawndale neighborhood, it is not uncommon to dodge a bullet on the way to school. For some young people, it is easier to not go at all than to risk their lives waiting at a bus stop.

Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune

But dropping out of school is not an option for this teen. His great-aunt, who has cared for him much of his life, sees to that. She insists that education is the only way he can break free from the cycle of poverty and violence that has plagued this West Side neighborhood for decades.

Barbara Herron, 66, wants a better life for her great-nephew than she has, always struggling to make ends meet. She wants more for him than what he sees on the streets. Young men hanging on the corner day in and day out with no job and no hope for a future, that's not the life she envisions for him.

But it's a constant struggle.

Like on the day he said he was shot at, shortly after school began last August.

"The way he was knocking, I couldn't get to the door fast enough," Herron said. "He said, 'Auntie, somebody's shooting at me.' The first thing was to find out if he was all right, and then I had to decide whether to send him back to school (that day).

"I didn't make him go back because I didn't know what this was about. He has reasons not to tell me things, but I know he has secrets. I know he has another life."

That's not uncommon for young people living at the intersection of poverty and violence.

All the time, I was thinking, 'I want to get home.' Then I checked my body to see if I was wet (with blood) anywhere.— Ninth-grader growing up in North Lawndale

Though less than 5 miles from the Loop — the city's economic epicenter — North Lawndale is littered with boarded-up storefronts, empty lots and vacant buildings that once housed the sprawling headquarters of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and thriving industries such as Zenith, Sunbeam and Western Electric.

There are many educated, working-class and professional people in North Lawndale who are raising children in stable families. But of the nearly 40,000 residents, more than 43 percent live in poverty. There were more than 280 shootings in North Lawndale in 2016 and more than 30 homicides during that time. Only Austin had more violent crime, according to the city.

The city's systemic segregation is largely responsible for the concentration of poverty in North Lawndale and other predominantly African-American communities.

"When you have economically disinvested communities, people are cut off from opportunities," said Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, executive director of the Chicago Urban League's Research and Policy Center. "Over time, the community instability grows and trickles down to the families. When you have that, you more likely will also have symptoms of poverty, such as crime and under-resourced schools."

In impoverished neighborhoods, parents often find themselves in a tug of war with the streets. Prison, drugs and joblessness have left too many homes without a father, forcing mothers, grandmothers and aunts to fight the battles alone. Sometimes, no matter how tight the grip, a child can slip away, turning into someone even a mother no longer knows.

During a 15-month period, there have been 23 shootings and three homicides in the six-block area where Herron lives. Once her great-nephew walks out the door, she realizes that she cannot protect him. That's when the young man does what he feels he must to protect himself.

"You've got to protect yourself because you never know if someone is going to be shooting at you or hit you with a car or something," the teenager said. "Sometimes people just think you have money, and it can cost you your life. I have to look at that person like he's trying to hurt me or take what I've got.

"Because he's black like me means nothing. It's all about protecting yourself and protecting your loved ones."

The Rev. Robin Hood, a longtime North Lawndale community organizer who knows the family, said the neighborhood is engaged in a block-to-block war that has been going on for years.

"You can't label them all a gang, but they are cliques," said Hood, a former activist with CeaseFire, which deploys former gang members and ex-felons to intervene in violent feuds. "They're still doing gang stuff, but it's not over drugs. It's over personal vendettas that start on social media."

Hood said it's imperative to reach troubled teens before they fall off what he calls the "eighth-grade cliff."

"If you don't have them in check by then, they fall right off the cliff," Hood said. "And it becomes a continuous vicious cycle of violence that happens over and over again."

Born into a violent culture

The young man didn't create the violent culture he lives in. He was born into it.

His mother was 14 when she had him. He doesn't even know his father's name.

When he was just 2 months old, his great-grandmother, Effie Herron, took him in and raised him. His great-aunt Barbara lived with them. So did four of Barbara's brothers.

Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune

The boy's mother lived there, too, for a while. She left when her son was still very young, and since then, he has barely had contact with her.

Effie moved to Chicago from Mississippi with her husband in the 1950s. She got a job on the assembly line at Oscar Mayer, her daughter said, and later did domestic work to purchase the two-story walk-up on the block where the family has lived for more than 60 years. One of her sons, Mack "Mini-Mack" Herron, was a running back for the New England Patriots in the 1970s, and helped the family financially for a while.

The brick-sided two flat, with three bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, would be a family treasure, passed down through generations long after she was gone. Or so she thought.

Three years before her death in 2013, Effie Herron signed away the family home in an alleged reverse-mortgage scheme that threatened to leave Barbara Herron and her great-nephew with no place to live. For months, they were threatened with eviction.

Last year, a judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and ordered Chicago businessman Mark Diamond and several of his companies to pay almost $2.4 million in restitution to Barbara Herron and other victims.

Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, Jason Meisner and Gregory Pratt

Recently, with the help of Hood, the pending eviction was resolved, and Barbara Herron no longer has to move. She has yet to collect the compensation, though.

Herron said her mother was ill and thought she was signing papers that would provide assistance for much-needed repairs. The basement continues to flood and is in disrepair, the upstairs heating unit needs to be replaced and mildew has spread throughout the building.

Barbara Herron suffers from severe asthma and is unable to work. She used to do odd jobs and take in sewing, but now she supports her great-nephew on a $733-per-month disability check and $194 monthly in food stamps.

After food, medical bills, utilities and other household expenses, there is little money left for anything else. She can't afford the gym shoes her great-nephew wants and certainly not the Xbox he's been asking for. The most she can do is slip a couple of dollars into his pocket now and then.

"Things are pretty tight right now, but I don't feel like I'm poor," Herron said. "We were poor when I was younger because there were big rats running through the house, and my father didn't have a job. He used to hustle cans to put food on the table. (Her great-nephew) doesn't have to worry about anything. He knows I'm going to take care of him."

But that doesn't stop his begging for money.

"Auntie, can I have a dollar?" the teen pleads, snuggling up to his great-aunt and resting his head on her shoulder.

"For what?" Herron asks.

He looks at her and beams with a boyish grin. "I want to go to the store. C'mon, Auntie, just a dollar."

"I don't have it," she answers.

He gives his great-aunt a hug and walks away.

His auntie is the most important person in the teenager's life. With his great-grandmother, his grandfather and his favorite Uncle Mack all deceased, she is all he has left.

"This is my mom," he said, placing his arm around his great-aunt's shoulders. "Just because a lady gave birth to me doesn't mean she's my mother. (A mother has) to take care of me. And that's what my auntie did all my life."

She looks at him and smiles. "Thank you."

At home, Herron tries to give the teenager a comfortable life. He has his own room, a pit bull puppy named Smokey and a smartphone. There's food in the refrigerator, and she tries to cook a hot meal at least on Sundays.

Just because a lady gave birth to me doesn't mean she's my mother. You have taken care of me. And that's what my Auntie did all her life.— Ninth-grader growing up in North Lawndale

Their first-floor living space is small and sparsely furnished. There's no dining room table. There's no artwork on the walls. The entertainment center in the living room is an end table holding a small TV. But there are reminders that a large, tight-knit family once occupied these rooms. On a built-in oak shelf in the dining room, framed photographs of Barbara's mother, Effie, and a cousin dressed in his naval uniform are displayed alongside her great-nephew's eighth-grade diploma.

For a teenager, though, comfort isn't always enough.

Impressing girls is a top priority. He's at the age when most young men are thinking about getting their learner's permit, but his great-aunt doesn't own a car. He wants to dress nicely, but he doesn't own designer jeans. He wants money for pizza and movies. But there's barely enough for school supplies.

The teenager is too young to work most jobs. And summer work programs designed for at-risk youths like him have dwindled in Chicago under budget cuts.

"I would love to have a job to go to after school and on weekends," the teenager said. "If I had money, life would be different. I could buy me a car when I'm 17."

In the meantime, he and his friends sometimes hustle, selling candy door to door in the suburbs.

The teenagers purchase boxes of candy at the neighborhood Save-A-Lot for $1.23. Then they hop on the Pink Line to the Metra station downtown and then on to Oak Park, Naperville or Arlington Heights.

They wear T-shirts emblazoned with their school logo, to "look more professional," the teenager said. And as an extra measure, he takes off his hoodie and ties it around his waist. They choose their customers carefully — they are deemed to have wealth if there's a nice car parked in the driveway.

The teenagers memorize a spiel designed to evoke empathy, though most of it is made up. He agreed to recite it while sitting in his living room.

"Hello, my name is ... We are with the Better Boys Foundation. Basically, we are a group of positive teens like myself who are staying away from guns, drugs and violence. We've formed a basketball team called H to G, Hard to Guard. I was wondering if you would like to buy one or two items to help purchase our jerseys?"

A six-pack box of candy sells for $10. And on a good day, they can make more than $100.

Victor Dickson, who runs a job training and placement program for ex-offenders, said this shows how enterprising many young men can be.

"It tells me that there is a real entrepreneurial spirit there," said Dickson, president of the Safer Foundation. "These kids have figured out wholesale and retail — how to pay for transportation and other expenses and make a profit. That's a business plan."

Guns are for protection

The teenager is well-known in the juvenile system. He started getting into trouble in 2015.

That year, he stole a car — twice, according to court records. Another time, he snatched a woman's purse. Police also caught him with a .25-caliber handgun. He'd bought it on the street for $90, using money from his candy sales, he said.

Since spending last summer under house arrest with an electronic monitor around his ankle, he had managed to steer clear of trouble. Two weeks before Christmas, police caught him allegedly with a gun on his way to his court-mandated after-school program. He spent Christmas and New Year's in juvenile detention.

Mary Schmich

The teenager is quick to point out that he has never shot anyone. Guns, he said, are only for protection.

"I'm not a violent person. I'm a good person. I've made some bad choices, hanging with the wrong crowd, taking cars and things like that," he said.

"When I took the car, I just drove it around the neighborhood. I wasn't thinking about what it meant. I was just driving. I wanted to drive, and nobody could afford to buy a car."

Sometimes those trips to the suburbs to sell candy make him and his friends realize how much they don't have. It is one thing when no one in your neighborhood has anything, and quite another when you go places and see that other young men, the same as you except for skin color and affluence, have what seems like everything.

In his neighborhood, some young people consider a gun a necessity in order to feel safe. In his case, it was more important to purchase a weapon than the Xbox he wanted.

Clifford Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, estimates that more than 90 percent of the young people his agency comes in contact with are carrying guns for self-defense.

"These kids have a real risk of being shot, and they tend to have guns because that's the reality they live in," said Nellis, whose organization offers pro bono legal services and runs the after-school program the teenager attends. "If you look at the number of shootings in North Lawndale, how they've had to dodge bullets and have seen their friends gunned down and killed, this isn't an unreasonable fear."

Crossing gang boundaries to go to school is a serious problem, Nellis said. What you end up with, he said, is kids who are carrying guns to protect themselves from other kids.

To get to school, the teenager takes a meandering route from the Blue Line. He crosses the street and charts his path through residential backyards, behind abandoned buildings and through a narrow alleyway before reaching his high school. The route is lined with garage doors and brick walls marked with gang graffiti.

Even with such meticulous planning, he doesn't always arrive safely. He has been shot at more than once.

The streets have hardened some of his friends. Their prospects for finding work are severely hampered by criminal records, a problem that affects roughly 70 percent of North Lawndale's young men between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the community-based North Lawndale Employment Network.

Many of those charges stem from drug-related crimes, the network found. Even if the young men wanted to turn their lives around, their criminal records follow them for life.

According to Nellis, this has a direct effect on the traditional family structure in North Lawndale.

"If you talk about the breakdown of the traditional family home — a mother and father raising their children — you have to put into perspective how families have deliberately been broken up through the criminal justice system," said Nellis, the lead attorney for his nonprofit legal group.

"When you deliberately pull men from a small community and put them in the criminal justice system in alarmingly high numbers, mostly for drug offenses, you are taking away fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins. You are literally breaking up families, which is a major blow to the neighborhood."

Dickson, of the Safer Foundation, said incarceration creates more poverty and thus more violence.

"The poor get even poorer because of incarceration. If you have a family living in poverty and the breadwinner is incarcerated, the family's income drops 22 percent. And when they come back home, they're going to earn 40 percent less for the rest of their life because they have a record," he said.

According to Herron, things were different on the block in the 1980s, when her mother purchased their home. Families knew each other and looked out for each other's children. It was considered normal for a parent down the street to punish a child for doing something and then tell the mother so she could punish him again at home. Some called it a "Mayberry" block.

"Now, I don't know their parents," Herron said. "Half of (the young men hanging out on the corners) don't even live on the block."

'Grown ... and moving out'

In this neighborhood, teenagers carry the weight of grown men on their shoulders. But many still have a youthful naivete that reminds you that they are still kids. And like many young people, they don't see beyond the moment.

For their generation, this version of North Lawndale is the only landscape they know. It is their norm, and there is no reason to think anything can — or should — ever change.

At this point in their lives, they aren't concerned about the startling statistics of their neighborhood. It has the city's fourth-highest concentration of households earning less than $12,000 a year. The unemployment rate is more than 21 percent, far higher than the citywide rate of 12.9 percent.

They believe that jobs are plentiful — for those willing to work. The only thing hindering them from working, they say, is their age.

But for them, the future is vague. Even if they make it to adulthood, the scope of their vision is limited.

One day, the teenager says he wants to attend college and become a professional football player, like his late Uncle Mack. But he's not on a high school team.

He says he would like to go to DePaul University. He didn't realize DePaul has no football program. Following the shooting incident last August, he left his public school and enrolled in an alternative school. His grades are poor, but he says he's determined to bring them up. That was before he was jailed on gun charges.

"I'm not going to mess up college," the teenager said prior to his arrest. "They're not going to kick me out (of high school). I'm going to do my work in the daytime, and as soon as 6 o'clock hits, I'm out."

The next week, he said his ultimate goal was to work at the airport. It didn't matter which one. In his youthful mind, that's the ultimate job — one where "they pay good money." The teenager has no idea what kind of airport jobs he would do or what kind of training he will need.

Another day, he said if nothing else works out, he would join the Marines.

There was no talk of becoming a doctor, a teacher or an architect. His dreams don't extend that far. On the island of poverty and violence where he lives, many people die young or end up stuck there forever.

If he is still in North Lawndale when he turns 18, the young man says he will obtain a concealed-carry license and purchase a legal gun for protection. He had no idea that the minimum age for a license is 21.

"I'll be grown, and I have to protect myself," he said. "If somebody tries to run up on me at the stoplight or something, I can protect myself legally, and I don't have to watch my back. I can just walk around without running from the police. Because I won't be doing anything wrong."

Having grown up in Lake Zurich, Nellis said he realizes there is a large segment of society that has no idea what is happening in neighborhoods like North Lawndale. As a white man who lives in North Lawndale, Nellis said he often has heated discussions with his white friends about economic disparities.

"I have friends who grew up poor, with a single mom, and they try to compare it to children in North Lawndale. I say, 'Yes, you've had challenges, but there are two major differences,'" he said. "'You had resources to fall on, not just a family but affluence and better schools. You had a pillow to fall on rather than hit rock bottom.'

"This isn't just a mom and dad issue, it's a community problem," he said. "When so many people on your block are faced with hopelessness, there is no safety net. It's not comparing apples to apples."

Some days, the teenager says he wants to stay in North Lawndale forever. Other days, he considers what it might be like to live someplace else.

"I think about being grown and having kids. Then I'm moving out," he said. "I would put my kids in a better environment. I don't want them to be in the same environment I'm in."

dglanton@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @dahleeng

A version of this article appeared in print on March 12, 2017, in the News section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline "A NORTH LAWNDALE TEEN'S STORY - Ninth-grader who says he has had to flee gunfire buys a gun, then gets busted and confined. Now he's trying to figure out how to escape a cycle of poverty." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe

When shootings spiked in January 2016 in Los Angeles, police officials quelled violence in the hardest-hit area by swiftly analyzing data and holding daily conference calls among station commanders to decide where to send officers. Over the following months, shootings in that part of the city dropped.

As a devastatingly violent year in Chicago ends, police officials here plan to launch a similar effort in January, focusing on the long-suffering Englewood and Harrison police districts first.

Empowering district commanders and staff to analyze crime patterns and make quick, strategic decisions is part of the Chicago Police Department's latest effort to find solutions to a surge in gun violence that has left more than 4,300 wounded and more than 750 dead, the city's most homicides since 1997.

The unrelenting year of violence, with an increase of 57 percent in homicides, left few parts of the city untouched and immeasurable sorrow and shock in its wake. For those living in the most dangerous neighborhoods, the violence began to feel almost normal, and a hopelessness set in.

Some, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, linked the increase in part to the fallout from the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal that played out over 2016. Intense scrutiny of the Police Department followed, including a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that may conclude in January.

The fallout exposed the Police Department's frayed relations with the city's minority communities and contributed to complex problems that law enforcement face in 2017 — a fractured gang structure with young, impulsive members; a seemingly endless supply of guns on the street; a police force grown hesitant amid heightened attention and criticism; and crime surging in neighborhoods that for decades have suffered from inadequate resources and opportunity.

"It's just easier to get a gun than it is to get a job," said William Sampson, who heads public policy studies at DePaul University.

A draft report released Thursday from the University of Chicago Crime Lab could find no single reason for the meteoric increase in the city's homicides and shootings.

Solutions to the epidemic were just as difficult to define, researchers said. But they noted the undeniable fact that guns are ravaging Chicago. Over the past 25 years, no other major city has had such a dramatic single-year increase in homicides as Chicago did, and more homicides were committed with guns in Chicago than in any other major city.

For that reason, a crackdown on criminals with guns is a major focus of authorities in the new year. Also essential, experts say, is restoring police morale and improving officer training. In the neighborhoods most racked by violence, the city and private companies are launching new investment efforts to offer an alternative to crime: a job.

Advocates say it's paramount that the solutions be comprehensive, not piecemeal, as Chicago confronts its public safety emergency.

Hot-spot policing

Massive gang organizations like the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples once claimed large swaths of territory in Chicago, protecting both the gang's reputation and drug trade with guns and violence. At the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1990s, more than 900 people were killed annually in the city in some years.

Shells of those larger gangs remain today, splintered into smaller block-by-block associations. Conflicts over drug territories remain a factor in Chicago's violence, but the immediacy of social media has exacerbated the problem, with personal disputes and challenges by gang rivals posing a constant threat. Many of the shootings appear to be retaliatory, leaving police searching for ways to interrupt the back-and-forth violence.

Chicago police attributed 75 percent of homicides in the city in 2015 and 2016 to altercations — most involving street gangs, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab draft report.

On the neighborhood-level, former gang members are still coordinating conflict interventions through church, community and city-affiliated programs, with a new program launched in 2016 on the historically troubled West Side. CeaseFire Illinois, founded 16 years ago, also remains active, though on a more limited basis after losing financial support from the state and city.

The Police Department's 12-page gang reduction strategy, last revised in January 2016, ranged from gang audits intended to monitor rivalries and changing boundaries to the department's signature "strategic subject list," a computerized algorithm designed to zero in on about 1,400 people, primarily gang members, considered most likely to shoot someone or become a victim of violence.

With the LAPD's recent guidance, Chicago police now plan to take an old concept — hot-spot policing — and decentralize it. Beginning this month, a single room in each of the 22 districts will be dedicated to tracking shootings, calls for help and information gathered on the street from beat officers. Armed with those data, district intelligence analysts, community policing officers and command staff will decide daily where to send teams of officers to try to counteract the violence.

"These rooms will be running 24/7, as opposed to (intelligence) coming from headquarters," First Deputy Superintendent Kevin Navarro said in an interview at police headquarters.

The Justice Department also has been paying for two consultants to provide Chicago with expert help. One of those is former Illinois State Police Chief Terrance Gainer, who began his long career in law enforcement as a Chicago cop. Gainer, who helped coordinate LAPD's recent visit, said the district-level focus fits with Chicago's existing data-driven approach.

"You are trying to empower each roll call," he told the Tribune. " 'Here is where we think the problem will be this weekend.' You get the officers in the district focused and psyched up with what you want them to do."

Los Angeles police officials said they are hopeful Chicago's plan to use their strategy will help. But, they say Los Angeles did more than refocus where cops patrolled.

"An important component was community engagement," said LAPD First Assistant Chief Michel Moore. Cops made outreach efforts in neighborhoods with the highest number of gang shootings, he said, "so that residents could feel safe coming out and, in a number of instances, providing information."

Still, a single policing strategy is no cure-all.

When Los Angeles used this targeted effort last spring in one area, Moore noted, crime jumped in other parts of the city. And homicides and shootings overall in that city were up slightly over 2015.

"We have to be mindful that other problems can erupt," Moore said.

Targeting repeat gun offenders

Chicago's increase in homicides was driven overwhelmingly by gun violence. The University of Chicago's draft report found that in 2016, 91 percent of homicides were committed with a gun. By comparison, between 2011 and 2015, the share of gun homicides averaged 72 percent in Los Angeles and 60 percent in New York.

It's incredibly frustrating when an officer locks someone up for a gun on a Thursday, and then next Wednesday sees this same guy.— Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson

Since taking office in March, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has repeatedly called for tougher gun laws for people with repeat gun convictions, saying they are unafraid of serious consequences for their actions.

"It's incredibly frustrating when an officer locks someone up for a gun on a Thursday, and then next Wednesday sees this same guy" back on the street, he said in a recent interview with the Tribune.

The idea of stiffer sentencing for gun crimes has been criticized, however. Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said questions remain about whether tougher sentences really have an impact. Yohnka pointed to the state's budget crisis as a more immediate problem, saying the impasse drains services that would help prevent crime.

Johnson said he was sensitive to the inequalities of the criminal justice system but feels consequences aren't dire enough to deter crime.

"I don't believe in mass incarceration or disproportionately arresting minorities," he said. "But what I do believe is if you pick up a freakin' gun and you pull the trigger … you should go to prison. That is just the bottom line. You should go to prison."

Johnson has an ally in newly elected Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, who said in a Tribune interview that fighting gun violence is "our No. 1 issue" and that her focus will be on targeting gun-trafficking networks. She also plans to bring in a top New York prosecutor and specialist in trafficking cases to set up a new gun crimes unit.

Foxx said she wants to identify the most violent criminals and is looking to forge partnerships with academics to try to better understand the root of the gun problem.

"We want to go after those who pull the trigger. We want to make sure that they are held accountable, and we also want to make sure that the next person who is thinking about picking up a gun doesn't," Foxx said.

Nina Vinik, program director for the Joyce Foundation's Gun Violence Prevention Program, said policymakers also should be looking at laws that tighten regulation and licensing of Illinois gun shops, where handguns can be illegally obtained through straw purchases.

"There needs to be a focus on the sources of crime guns that are flooding Chicago's streets," Vinik said. "Chicago has an exponentially greater challenge with illegal guns than LA or New York. There is no silver bullet. We need to do lots and lots of different things. We need to reform the Chicago Police Department and restore community trust. But we also need to get our arms around our illegal gun problem."

Absent from much of the rhetoric, experts say, is more concrete research on the gun issue. There has been a long-standing frustration in the public health community that Congress does not fund research on gun violence like other health epidemics, said Roberta Rakove, senior vice president for Sinai Health Systems.

Just this December, however, a group of academics, hospitals and public health researchers in Chicago pledged to cooperate on new research on gun violence.

"Given the nature of the emergency here in Chicago, we really couldn't wait," Rakove said.

Improving morale, professionalism

In the Laquan McDonald case, the court-ordered release in November 2015 of disturbing police dashboard camera video showing white Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the black 17-year-old 16 times had a ripple effect on police all year. Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired within days of the video's release, and the Justice Department probe of police practices followed.

In the ensuing months, the department drew withering criticism, especially for its failure over the decades to properly punish officers for a wide range of misconduct, including excessive force, as Tribune investigations found. The misconduct damaged relations with the public, which experts say makes it all the more difficult for police to get the community's help in fighting crime.

Officers, in turn, were stung by the unprecedented scrutiny and public anger. In stories published in the Tribune in 2016, officers described plunging morale, and their more cautious approach on the street. The Tribune found officers made fewer stops of citizens for information, and fewer arrests. Some officers believe the new scrutiny of police also emboldened criminals, now more likely to carry guns and taunt officers, and contributed to rising violence.

Whether any of this had an impact on crime is not immediately clear. But Chicago police will have a better chance of chipping away at the violence if the department can make headway not only in restoring community trust, but in steadying officers, said Anne Kirkpatrick, who heads the department's Bureau of Professional Standards.

"When officers are trained with the best practices and constitutional policing ... they can be confident they are staying within the boundaries," she said. "And when they stay within the boundaries, they don't need to worry about getting into trouble."

In September, the city scrapped the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency charged with investigating police misconduct, and announced a new board that would have somewhat expanded powers and authority.

The Police Department has also proposed changes to its policy regarding when officers can use force. The department also launched two-day retraining that emphasizes "de-escalation" tactics to try to reduce the number of fatal confrontations, with aims to train its entire force in a year.

Chicago police bought more Tasers to give officers more options in potentially deadly confrontations. And it expanded its use of body-worn cameras to improve transparency. On Wednesday, the department announced an accelerated rollout of the cameras, saying all officers would be outfitted by the end of 2017.

Emanuel also has pledged he will add about 1,000 more officers to the current count of some 12,000 sworn department members. A Tribune examination of department rosters last month, however, showed that the city has some catching up to do when it comes to manpower. The number of sworn officers has shrunk approximately 7 percent over six years — including the loss of about 600 officers since Emanuel took office in 2011.

The mayor has committed to creating a citizens' oversight board to monitor the department, as other cities across the country have done when faced with intense criticism of police practices. Emanuel, though, has yet to offer specifics on when that board would be created, how it would be structured or whether he would control a majority of its appointments.

Experts note that giving power to a strong citizen board will be critical going forward.

"That is really important," said Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a national policy platform that grew from the national concern over police-involved shootings of citizens and now tracks and researches reform. "(From) the changes to the strategies of the Police Department to ensuring the department is behaving appropriately, that can only happen with strong community oversight."

Hopelessness and poverty

Over the decades in Chicago, the same communities that have suffered from pernicious poverty and joblessness also have endured the highest rates of violence. Last year was no different.

When you are nothing, you have nothing to lose. The only way to become something is to pick up a gun.— William Sampson, DePaul University public policy studies department

The largest increases in homicides occurred in five communities — Englewood, West Englewood, New City, Austin and West Garfield Park. More than 37 percent of the population in those areas live below the poverty line, compared with 23 percent citywide, according to the Crime Lab draft report.

These five neighborhoods contain just 8 percent of the city's population but accounted for an estimated 32 percent of the city's homicides, researchers noted.

The decline in Chicago's poor minority neighborhoods began decades ago when good-paying factory jobs — once available to anyone with a high school diploma — dried up, said Sampson, the public policy expert.

Socioeconomic factors and a blatantly racist real estate market kept many neighborhoods on the South and West sides segregated and isolated. Many blacks and Latinos, the primary residents of these neighborhoods, also became entangled in a criminal justice system that punishes most harshly those without financial means, leading to a cycle of poverty and prison.

These facts are known, but solving systemic poverty remains daunting.

New attempts to offer economic opportunities have surfaced periodically on South and West sides. In Englewood last year, for example, a new Whole Foods opened, with shoppers cheering as they pushed carts through the front doors.

But while he championed the effort, Sampson cautioned that it will take a lot more to rebound from decadeslong economic neglect. A massive effort is needed, combining tax dollars with private enterprise, the DePaul professor said.

"No one piece is going to do it," he said. "If you try to fix piece by piece, you're just spitting in the wind."

Some attempts at addressing those needs are in the works.

In September, there was the launch of Chicago Trend, a for-profit development organization that aims to lure stable investment, including big chains, to marginal neighborhoods, relying in part on deep data dives on the buying power that could be capitalized, according to the organization.

Chase Bank announced in October it would fund $3.5 million in micro-loans and other efforts to draw retail — and the jobs that come with it — to distressed areas.

And Emanuel launched the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, allowing developers to build at higher densities in an expanded downtown area in return for channeling money toward development and job training in economically disadvantaged areas.

The mayor has been criticized for his cuts to mental health services early in his tenure, which some argue has contributed to an increasingly frayed network of support for these hard-hit communities.

Still, in September, Emanuel announced a $36 million initiative to support mentoring throughout the city to try to bring stability to kids growing up in the most troubled areas. Long-term relationship-building with young people, through such programming, may be the best hope at reducing the sway of gangs in the first place, say neighborhood organizers.

The work is hard and requires not just a financial commitment but a strong, emotional investment, outreach groups say.

"Young people get together and they engage in negative behavior like violence, and there's no one to say, 'Here's how you become a better friend,' " said Joshua Brooks, an outreach worker who teaches nonviolence to students at Austin College and Career Academy. "There has to be some sort of relationship that forms to teach peace."

Need for long-range plans

Despite the city's efforts, proposals so far for decreasing violence have been short-sighted, say many community groups.

In a 16-page report released in November, a wide-ranging group of nearly 50 Chicago organizations called out the city for a fundamental problem with its violence response — the lack of an in-depth, over-arching strategy.

"Chicago remains without a comprehensive plan to prevent and respond to (gun violence). Such a plan is sorely needed," the group concluded.

Emanuel's September speech outlining his own public safety strategy, in which he detailed his proposals to hire more officers and improve mentoring and shore up economic development, falls short, they said.

Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune

The group — which ranged from the ACLU of Illinois to small storefront church ministries — called for a deeper assessment and a multi-year plan with stable funding to achieve the "scale, staffing, population targeting, program fidelity" to really address the violence.

"There are ways to implement cost-effective programs to target violence," said Stephanie Kollmann, policy director of Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University's law school, a signatory on the report. "The long-term, systemic answers require funding. A full answer would be expensive. Obviously it requires real investment and certainly redistribution of some resources from some parts of the city to another."

Emanuel's spokesman, Adam Collins, agreed the problem is multifaceted and said the mayor's speech laid out his commitment to broader plans to address those issues. He also said the mayor's expansion of summer jobs for youth is key.

"The reality is that it is a complex challenge that will require a comprehensive solution," he said. "That is what the mayor outlined in September, and that was the intention behind the approach."

Whatever help might materialize can't come soon enough, Sampson said. With problems so deeply ingrained, hopelessness could lead to desperation, and desperation to yet more violence.

"We live in a society where your worth is measured by what you have, and these folks have nothing," Sampson said of those living in neighborhoods wracked by violence. "When you are nothing, you have nothing to lose. The only way to become something is to pick up a gun."

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

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