Friday, April 15, 2016

Gangs, Racism and Homicide in Chicago

The Mayor’s Task Force has said the obvious: Racism is at the heart of the problems with Chicago Police Department. Consider CPD history.

Chicago Police looked the other way when racist gangs attacked the black community during the 1919 race riots. They enforced the “era of hidden violence’ from the 1920s to the end of the 1940s, when whites attacked any black family daring to move across segregated lines. They were paid off by the Outfit, Chicago’s mafia, in protecting Outfit gambling and vice businesses, but cracked down on black and Latino small scale hustling. CPD officers pretended they did not hear when Jon Burge physically tortured, in CPD stations, more than a hundred black gang members. The code of silence meant violence against African Americans, including police murder, has been business as usual for decades.

In recent years the excuse for police violence has been the need to combat gangs.  Gang violence, in the mind of much of the public, justifies brutal and illegal police tactics. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that gangs are behind Chicago’s high homicide rate?

I don’t. I’ve studied gangs and homicide in Chicago for the past 20 years. While gang members certainly account for more than their share of homicides, we might consider some discrepant information.

To start off with there are at least as many Latino gang members in Chicago as African American gangsters. Yet three quarters of all homicide victims and offenders are black, and have been for decades.  Hmm. We have Latino and Black gangs. Much higher rates among Black gangs?  Maybe being Black has something to do with it?

A recent UIC Great Cities Study reports nearly half of young black men in Chicago are unemployed.  Homicide worldwide, the UN Study on Global Homicide tells us, is related to the desperation of unemployed young men.  Conditions in Chicago’s African American communities qualify as desperation in my book. A war on gangs? Why not a war on unemployment or poverty?

Similarly claims by DEA’s Jack Riley that Chicago homicides are related to the Mexican cartels defies logic. If homicide is mainly about drug trafficking, why are are there so few homicides of Mexicans compared to African Americans?  Some say the six Mexican family members killed in February in Gage Park was a cartel hit.  Maybe, but regardless the vast majority of all homicides remain between very poor African Americans.

Today there are no citywide wars over drug turf as the organized gangs wars of the 1990s. The violence of that decade contributed to the shattering of Chicago’s African American “super-gangs.”   Black gang drug dealing today is small scale and local and that means deadly disputes have largely stayed local.  Despite scary violent drill rap videos, the number of homicides today is at half the level of the carnage of the 1990s.  

If gangs are the root of the homicide problem, why does Los Angeles, with as many gangs as Chicago, have a homicide rate of 7.3/100,000 while Chicago’s is at 17.2? Maybe the hopelessness of African Americans in the rustbelt has something to do with it?  Chicago’s homicide rate is similar to other rustbelt cities, like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland or Memphis who are all between 20 and 25. While Chicago’s homicide rate is four times higher than New York City’s 3.9, thankfully, it has not risen to Detroit’s level of 44 or St. Louis’ 50.

Homicide in Chicago has been relatively steady since 2004 when the city wide gang wars ended. This year’s jump in the first three months is similar to jumps in 2008 and 2012 which saw small spikes that fell the next year.  The 135 total homicides in the first three months of this year are slightly more than the 114 in 2012 but far below the 200 in the first three months of 1991.  While homicide this year is likely to level off, the main point is Chicago’ homicide rates is steady and not falling.

Is there a “Ferguson effect?” The Sentencing Project doesn’t think so. The jump in St Louis homicides occurred before Michael Brown’s killing by police.  While the CPD claims the new policies of reducing Chicago’s stops of African Americans is responsiblefor Chicago’s 2016 uptick in homicide, it is more likely that the CPD’s behavior having "no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color" in the words of the Mayor’s Task Force has been a major factor contributing to the hostility of young black men over the years.  For example, the CPD’s 250,000 stops of citizens in 2014 “dwarfs” the rate of stops by the New York Police Department in their highest years.

A large percentage of Chicago’s homicides appear to be related in some way or another to African American gang or clique members.  However, in my opinion, gangs today are more effect than cause of high homicide rates.  I concur with the Mayor’s Task Force who argues:

We arrived at this point in part because of racism.
We arrived at this point because of a mentality in CPD that the ends justify the means.
We arrived at this point because of a failure to make accountability a core value and imperative within CPD.
We arrived at this point because of a significant underinvestment in human capital.

I’ve stated in this blog previously that the CPD bear a large degree of responsibility for our city’s entrenched gang problem.  Gangs make good headlines and scapegoats but Chicago has to take a hard look in the mirror at the desperate conditions facing black youth and the CPD’s responsibility for a culture of alienation and hostility.

There are no easy answers to reducing Chicago’s homicide rate. Police officers must follow the law and the blue code needs to be undermined. Radical changes in police culture must accompany investment in black communities, better and more stable housing and education, reductions in prison population, and more jobs.  The Task Force points out we have reached this crisis in policing because of racism. We have to also recognize the uncomfortable reality that our homicide rate is also more about race than gangs.  

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