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As Homicide Rate Soars on Chicago’s South Side, Community Steps Up to Halt Crime

August 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Police officers in Chicago's Third District have seen 21 murders since January of this year -- a 90 percent increase in the homicide rate. Special correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW Chicago reports on new police strategies, which recruit help from community members to curb violent crime in the South Side neighborhood.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a soaring homicide rate in Chicago prompts alarm, mourning and changes.

It’s been a bloody year in the city. Nearly 300 people have been killed in the first seven months of the year. That’s 31 percent higher than it was a year ago. Residents are angry.

Special correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW reports on how police are changing their approach in a hard-hit district.

LYNETTE HELM, Chicago police commander: OK. So, today, as always, we’re going to make sure that we deploy to our conflict zones.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Commander Lynette Helm gives the afternoon shift their orders before they head out to their beats in Chicago’s Third Police District on the city’s South Side.

Officers once in specialized units and desk jobs are now being moved to the street. It’s part of a new strategy to combat violence that Deputy Chief Eddie Johnson says is working.

EDDIE JOHNSON, deputy Chicago police chief: These guys are actually assigned to the districts. They’re assigned to those beats, so they get to know the community people, they get to know the gang members. There’s difference in the kid, the 16-year-old kid going to play basketball and the 16-year-old going out to gang bang.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Some Chicago aldermen think the old strategy of deploying specialized rapid-response units to saturate an area once violence broke out was more effective.

LATASHA THOMAS, Chicago alderman: We saw a big difference when that would happen. It was like in war, when you throw it all down and it scatters and everybody gets scared. It’s a little good scare tactic. And, so, yes, from the community standpoint, it worked.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But that saturation strategy brought only short-term results, say Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

GARRY MCCARTHY, Chicago Police superintendent: First of all, the principle of saturation it is like putting a gunshot — is looking putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. We’re not repairing anything by doing that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Since getting more officers back on the street, most crime statistics are down. But the murder rate has soared.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has staked his reputation on bringing the rate down. In the Third Police District, murder is up 91 percent over last year.

What do you hear?

ALTOMIXE REID, Chicago: Multiple gunshots, like the war zone, not just a couple of shots. And they’re in separate places. It’s not just like one block. It’s four different places where they’re shooting at.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The 3rd District encompasses gritty street corners, vacant land and boarded-up buildings. But it also has quiet tree-lined streets.

Michelle Obama’s childhood home is in the 3rd District. Police say 75 to 80 percent of the murders and shootings here are gang-related.

EDDIE JOHNSON: So, one of things that we did early on was conducted a gang audit in all 23 districts in the city. That information is then given to district commanders, along with the field officers and the front-line supervisors. One of the things that we focused on is, it is difficult to stop first shooting sometimes, but we focus on the subsequent shootings, because sometimes one shooting will result in three, four, five or six additional shootings.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When Officers Barbara Jenkins and Ameen Mustafa are on patrol, they have all the information from the gang audit at their fingertips.

Whenever they stop someone, the officers immediately go to their computer.

LYNETTE HELM: The gang audit has been extremely important, an important tool for the field officers. Before, like when I came on the job, we didn’t have portable data terminals to run a name check or anything.

But now an officer can run a name, put a name in their computer, in their portable data terminal, and come up with a gang member’s name and come up with associates or things of that nature that can help them in their crime-fighting.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The homicide rate has slowed down some in the month of June. But on June 24, a 13-year-old was gunned down right here on this block. His was the 21st death in the district since January 1.

The 13-year-old’s murder is under investigation, with no suspects in custody. After that killing and a big spike in the number of shootings, Commander Helm again adjusted the crime-fighting strategy.

LYNETTE HELM: We identified violence zones in our district where we put officers in that area to do these missions. But we also — like I said, we did more contact with the community. We had the officers doing foot patrol. We did a whole lot of holistic approaches. We got our churches involved. We asked them to open their doors. So those are some of the things that we did a little bit differently.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There are over 175 churches and mosques in the Third Police District, ranging from huge institutions to small storefronts. And many have responded to the crisis of violence.

Charles Matthews takes his church’s message to the streets.

CHARLES MATTHEWS, Chicago: So nothing won’t happen to you like what happened over here to this little boy that got killed over here.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Matthews tells the kids about several summer programs offered by the church and urges them to give the programs a try. He became a parent volunteer for the church after getting fed up with the neighborhood violence.

CHARLES MATTHEWS: I got involved because I’m just — I’m hurting for the community.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Parkway Gardens Christian Church kept its Safe Haven program running in the summer, even though it lost its funding from the Chicago Public Schools.

It’s a second job for director Jennifer Maddox. A Chicago police officer, Maddox is assigned to the 3rd District.

JENNIFER MADDOX, Chicago police officer: It’s frustrating to see the kids out here in the violence, and they’re getting shot at, running from the violence and things like that. That’s why it’s so important to have some activities for them to do so that they won’t be hanging on the corners.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Pastor Edward Morris keeps a watchful eye on a group of older boys as they play a hot game of basketball.

REV. EDWARD MORRIS, Parkway Gardens Christian Church: Every kid we can get off the street, every teenager, particularly our African-American males, that we can have a place like this during the times of the shootings where they know they got a safe place to come, we feel that we’re putting somewhat of a dent.

And while it may appear to be a Band-Aid, if there’s just one life that’s saved, there’s just one kid who changes his mind on how he wants to exist in this world, we believe we’re making a difference.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A safe haven is important for kids like 16-year-old Antwan Barner, a program counselor.  

ANTWAN BARNER, program counselor: It’s unsafe. Like, I’m actually afraid to walk out my front door.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Have gangs ever tried to recruit you?

ANTWAN BARNER: No.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Why not? What have you done to say no?

ANTWAN BARNER: Because the guys that I went to school with know that I’m not that type of person, so they never tried.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The district also includes the Gary Comer Youth Center and charter school, whose summer programs include a gardening class.

The center serves more than 1,200 kids each year with a budget of $16 million. With all the resources Comer has poured into the area, the rise in violence is frustrating, says executive director Greg Mooney.

GREG MOONEY, Gary Comer Youth Center: Of course it’s frustrating. I don’t know anybody who isn’t frustrated by the violence in Chicago. But, really, without a place like the Gary Comer Youth Center and Gary Comer College Prep, our young people are more vulnerable to the violence that surrounds them.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And despite the opportunities, Comer College Prep students like Dominique Jones are still strongly impacted by the neighborhood violence.

DOMINIQUE JONES, student: I’m afraid of dying at a young age, not being able to fulfill my dreams.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Those fighting against the violence in the 3rd District all agree on one point. The effort must involve the entire community.

EDDIE JOHNSON: The police can’t do this alone. There’s no way we’re going to wrest our way out of this situation. So we absolutely need community input to try to make an impact.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The community, says Rev. Morris, is ready to respond.

REV. EDWARD MORRIS: These are our neighborhoods. It doesn’t belong to the gangbangers, and the drug dealers and the drug pushers. It belongs to us. And I believe that with the efforts that so many churches and neighborhood organizations are making, we’re going to take it back. We just can’t stop.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The 3rd District has just gotten some help in battling the high homicide rate. The city is bringing in 20 members of Operation CeaseFire, a group that works to cool down street violence.

Previously, the state of Illinois has funded CeaseFire’s work in the city. Chicago police have been reluctant to work with CeaseFire, as many are ex-felons. But with the homicide rate soaring, Mayor Rahm Emanuel says it’s time to reach out to any group that can make a difference.