Why the Chicago Gun Epidemic Is Out of Control

© (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford, File) In this Nov. 4, 2015, file photo, a reward sign and messages hang near the site where 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee was fatally shot Nov. 2 in Chicago. On Monday, March 7, 2016, Dwright Boone-Doty, 22, was charged…
© (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford, File) In this Nov. 4, 2015, file photo, a reward sign and messages hang near the site where 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee was fatally shot Nov. 2 in Chicago. On Monday, March 7, 2016, Dwright Boone-Doty, 22, was charged…

The day he was killed, Tyshawn Lee had been playing on the swings at a local playground. It was four in the afternoon, and his grandmother’s house was barely a block away. 

Children are murdered with distressing frequency in Chicago, often in places of safety: a mother’s lap; a Fourth of July celebration; a sleepover at a friend’s house. But Tyshawn’s murder was different. The nine-year-old was executed.

A 21-year-old gang member had approached him, dribbled the fourth grader’s basketball and offered to buy him something at a local store, officials said. The two of them were seen walking into the alley. There, officials said, Dwright Boone-Doty had faced the little boy directly and shot him multiple times at close range. Part of Tyshawn’s thumb was missing, as if he had raised his hand trying to stop the bullets.

Police said Tyshawn had been targeted on 2 November because of his father’s gang connections. The murder stunned the city. How had one of America’s greatest cities let violence spiral so out of control that a fourth grader could be assassinated in broad daylight?

Boone-Doty was charged with murder earlier this month. Both he and another man allegedly involved in Tyshawn’s killing had been in custody since mid-November. “We hope this development will bring some level of closure to his family and friends,” Chicago’s interim police superintendent said at a press conference.

Instead, hours later, Tyshawn’s 25-year-old father, Pierre Stokes, aimed a gun at the girlfriend of one of the gang members allegedly involved in his son’s murder, said “I’m going to kill you, bitch,” and started shooting, a prosecutor said. The woman survived with only a grazed face. Two of her nephews went to the hospital with bullet wounds.

This escalating spiral of retribution on Chicago’s South Side – drawing in mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends and children – comes as both the city and the state are in crisis. Chicago public school teachers are planning a city-wide strike. The city has been wracked by a state budget standoff that is decimating social service programs and by continuing public outrage over how the police department and city officials responded to the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a police officer.

Since January, gun violence in Chicago has spiked. The city has seen twice as many shootings this year as it did last year, and nearly twice as many homicides. If the current trend of violence continues, the state’s attorney said last month, Chicago is on track to see 700 homicides this year – 200 more than in 2012, when the number of deaths sparked outrage and vows of reform.

Asked to explain the rising violence, a spokesman for Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel pointed to crime trends in St Louis and Baltimore, where protests and outrage over police violence towards black citizens were accompanied by increases in shootings and homicides. The mayor’s office suggested that police officers are afraid of being “the next viral video” and that officers were “aware of gangbangers and criminals who are more emboldened given the environment.”

As Chicago police officers describe themselves as being under attack, some kinds of proactive policing activities have dropped. Total arrests are down about 27% this year compared with the same period last year, according to official statistics. Investigative stops are down about 80%. Other kinds of arrests have not slowed: arrests for more violent crimes, including murder, are up since last year, a police department spokesman said, and gun arrests have remained flat.

The data is far from conclusive. But Baltimore saw a similar pattern after the Freddie Gray riots: police officers feeling betrayed by city officials. A sudden drop in arrests. A sudden spike in shootings and homicides. The bloodshed after Gray’s death left Baltimore with more murder victims than the city had seen since 1993.

If Chicago cannot slow down the rate of shootings, some residents worry, the city may be headed towards a level of violence it has not seen in decades.

Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in the US. It’s possible to spend an entire day in Auburn Gresham, the neighborhood where Tyshawn was killed, without seeing a single white face – except the faces of white officers rolling by in a squad car.

The segregation was purposeful, the legacy of decades of discriminatory housing policies. Even today, neighborhood residents say, they see clear differences in public schools, economic investment and opportunity. In white neighborhoods, “you have everything that is set up for success,” said Keishana Mahone, 41, who lives in Auburn Gresham. Here, she said, “you see everything set up to fail.”

Even in neighborhoods struggling with poverty and unemployment, it’s a very small percentage of people driving most of the violence. Researchers studying non-fatal shootings in Chicago found that most of the violence occurred within a loose network of people that made up about 6% of Chicago’s total population. Within that network, they found, violence seemed to spread like a virus. The more connections people had with shooting victims, the more likely they were to be a victim of a shooting themselves.

The people at highest risk of being shot in Chicago were black gang members, followed by Hispanic gang members. Chicago’s gangs used to be powerful, highly structured organizations. Today, those gangs have fractured into tiny factions whose membership is defined by the span of a few neighborhood blocks. In Auburn Gresham, officials said, Tyshawn’s death was part of a long-running gang war between Killa Ward, a faction of the Gangster Disciples, and the Bang Bang Gang/Terror Dome faction of the Black P Stones.

Two weeks before Tyshawn’s murder, officials said, Boone-Doty had opened fire on a car that he thought held a rival gang member. A prosecutor said he later claimed “he did not even know who was in the car” when he shot. All he had seen was the man’s dreadlocks. The man survived. Nineteen-year-old Brianna Jenkins, who was also sitting in the car, did not.

The police department’s clearance rate for murder is only 31%, meaning that the majority of murders go unsolved and unpunished.

In Auburn Gresham, some local residents felt that local police officers had a racially biased approach to dealing with young men. “Every black boy is not a criminal,” said Malone, whose son, a singer who grew up in the neighborhood, was a contestant on The Voice. But a more common complaint in the neighborhood was that police officers did not patrol aggressively enough, or in the right places. Mahone said she was often frustrated to see two or three squad cars in the parking lot of a local CVS, or parked on the same neighborhood side street, rather than patrolling in more dangerous areas.

In Dawes Park, a group of teenagers playing basketball pointed to a police cruiser stopped nearby. It was a bright, chilly afternoon, and, except for them, the park was nearly empty. Wasn’t there somewhere else that needed more police attention?

Chicago’s police department has swung from a dramatically high rate of investigative stops to a dramatically low one. In the summer of 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union found, Chicago police officers made more than 250,000 stops that did not lead to an arrest – a rate of stops four times higher than New York City at the height of stop and frisk. The vast majority of those stopped were African-American, and the ACLU found that officers had failed to report a legal reason for the stop in half of the incidents they analyzed.

In response, the department agreed to require officers to fill out a detailed, two-page form for every person they stopped, a requirement officers have complained is burdensome. Since the new requirements went into effect on 1 January, investigative stops have plunged 80%.

Representatives of the ACLU and the city’s police union said they did not think there was a direct connection between the decrease in stops and the spike in violence.

“We’ve got to be very careful with police officers being blamed for crime increasing,” said Dean C Angelo Sr, the president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police. “They’re blamed when they search people and then they’re being blamed when they don’t search people. What does the community want?”

Angelo said the political aftermath of the Laquan McDonald protests had created an “unprecedented” environment for police officers.

“They don’t want to be the next YouTube video,” he said. “They’re telling me: ‘Every single traffic stop or street stop, I’ve got 15 cellphones filming me.’”

“I don’t know how much more people want to impact policing – people that have never done policing, by the way – before they realize that they’ve curtailed the opportunity to be proactive,” Angelo said.

One Chicago officer, who was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the so-called “YouTube effect” was not the real reason for decreased police initiative.

“If you’re doing your job in the right way, guys aren’t afraid of being videotaped,” the officer said. “Guys are afraid that our administration isn’t going to back us, that special interest groups will take it and run with it and the next thing you know, you’re being charged.”

Chicago officials have long blamed the city’s violence problem on a flood of illegal guns streaming into the city and into the hands of felons. The city has strict gun laws, as conservatives often point out, but weapons recovered at Chicago crime scenes often come from states like Mississippi or neighboring Indiana, which have much looser laws.

Last week, nearly 200 people came to Saint Sabina, a church in Auburn Gresham, for the Chicago premiere of a new gun control documentary, Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA. The film juxtaposed the stories of shooting victims with examples of the wealth and influence of National Rifle Association leaders and firearm industry executives. Its policy proposals – including background checks for every gun sale – were met with murmurs of approval.

Tommie Bosley, whose 18-year-old son Terrell was shot to death outside a church in 2006, said his years of being an advocate for tougher gun laws had taught him that “There’s a certain segment of society that basically values money more than people’s lives.”

“To actually see that put in your face, and have people tell you that – that’s very disappointing,” he said.

At Barack Obama’s town hall discussion on guns in January, Father Michael Pfleger, Saint Sabina’s firebrand priest, asked the president why guns could not be licensed or registered like cars.

Obama, who referred to him affectionately as Father Mike, told him gun registration was too extreme for the current political climate. “There’s just not enough national consensus at this stage to even consider it,” he said.

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Source: The Guardian | Lois Beckett in Chicago