Q&A: What’s Behind Chicago’s Homicide Spike?


April 17, 2012
Watch The Interrupters, one year in the life of a city grappling with violence through the eyes of those fighting to sow peace and security.

Chicago homicides are up by 60 percent in the first three months of this year compared with last year, according to new Chicago Police Department data that also showed a sharp rise in non-fatal shootings during the same period. The spike comes despite the fact that additional police resources have been targeted in some of Chicago’s most dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhoods.

To learn more about what might be behind the rise and about efforts to curb it, FRONTLINE turned to a man with experience on the ground and a unique perspective on ending violence. Tio Hardiman is the director of CeaseFire Illinois, an innovative violence prevention organization that applies public health principles in its approach to reduce the numbers of shootings and killings in communities with the highest rates of murder and poverty. In 2004, Hardiman began CeaseFire’s “violence interrupters” program — the subject of our film The Interrupters — in which former gang leaders who possess the personality, drive and connections within a community mediate conflicts that could turn violent and talk individuals down from retaliatory violence.

Why could be behind such a significant rise in homicides? Can you put those numbers in context?

“The community needs to step up as well, the same way that everybody stepped up for Trayvon Martin. Imagine the impact that would have in these communities…”

Violence has increased in Chicago for a lot of reasons. The number one is that you have to continue to work on changing the way people think to change behavior. You cannot just wish a way out of this particular problem, because violent behavior has been passed down from generation to generation especially here in Chicago.

Chicago is a different beast when it comes down to the issue of violence. You have outbreaks of violence the same way you have outbreaks of diseases in countries throughout the world. Some people are going to sleep in Chicago thinking about who they’re going to shoot the next day.

Also, the gang dynamics have actually been broken down in Chicago. You have more factions and cliques … because no one wants to listen to any leaders, so everyone is pretty much trying to fend for themselves. Some of the [cliques] are 20-strong, some of them are 100-strong, some of them might be 300- or 400-strong, in African American communities. … It’s not gang against gang like in some communities, you have more of the interpersonal clique violence going on. …

In the Latino communities in Chicago you have dividing lines. And if you’re on the other side of the line, just like Aliyah Shell, the six-year-old girl who was shot and killed a few weeks ago — she happened to live on one side of Little Village, and the guys from the other side, they don’t care who they shoot over there… There’s been a 30-year war in Little Village between particular rival organizations. …

Another thing is this: If you have a lot of guys out there on the corners it’s hard to identify who the shooters are. So let’s say you arrest 200 guys that are standing on the corner, you still may not get the shooters. The shooters are more in the background, and they show up when they have to. It only takes five or six seconds to shoot somebody. …

So what needs to be done that isn’t already happening?

The law enforcement are doing the best they can do, but the community needs to step up as well, the same way that everybody stepped up for Trayvon Martin. Imagine the impact that would have in these communities if everybody — athletes, the NAACP, the Urban League, the NBA players — would step up once a month and just flood these communities with public education information talking about stopping the violence and reaching out the highest-risk individuals. …

Our main goal is to work with these shooters out here, and to get them to put their guns down, because you can march in the community and you can march in the area, but you have to stop the shooters. That’s what we do on a regular basis.

Why aren’t these groups coming together like that already? Why hasn’t that happened yet?

We work with the Urban League in Chicago. … But the thing is, a lot of times violence has become the norm in cities like Chicago, and a lot of times when it comes to black-on-black violence, a lot of people do not necessarily step all the way up.

You would think when Derrion Albert was beaten to death a couple years ago [and cell phone video of his death went viral across the nation], that all the violence would stop after that situation, but everything went back to usual.

We have to get more people involved in stepping up in these communities at least once a month to help us with our presence in the area. When Aliyah Shell was killed, we should have had 30,000 people in Little Village shutting that community down, forcing those guys to take a look at what’s going on and get them to the table so they can find a truce and stop the killing. You would think that would happen.

There’s also a real serious spirit of revenge in the air in Chicago. People have been killed over the years and a lot of guys are trying to avenge the death of their fallen comrades. So the spirit of revenge is really deep. The only way to effective stop a guy from killing someone is to have boots on the ground with those young guys so you can intervene.

What kinds of efforts has CeaseFire been making?

Just to give you a number, from January to March in 2012 [the same period of the reported spike in homicides], CeaseFire outreach mediated 157 conflicts and the violence interrupters mediated 118. That gives you a grand to total of 275 mediations.

Last year, the outreach workers mediated 550 conflicts and the violence interrupters mediated 487. In 2011, we worked with 1151 high-risk youth and we organized about 20 peace summits in Chicago. We spent about 28,000 man-hours with 1,151 people that we work with on changing their behaviors.

You have to understand we only work in one-third of the areas in Chicago we need to work in due the fact that we don’t have the resources to work all throughout the city. The CeaseFire zone experienced a range from a 14 to 55 percent reduction in shootings and homicides in 2011. In particular on the West Side in the 11thdistrict, CeaseFire zones experienced a 44 percent reduction in homicides. Over in Engelwood, we experienced a 14 percent reduction in homicides in the CeaseFire zones.

But I want to make this clear too: It’s not all about CeaseFire, because you have a lot of groups doing some work in the community, and the police have been out there as well, so I want to take nothing away from nobody. But that’s what we contributed towards getting the homicides down. But now they’re up due to some of the reasons I just talked to you about. …

What can law enforcement and the government do?

Well right now what needs to happen is that CeaseFire along with the Chicago Police Department and the state-based leaders and community groups working on this issue, we all need to form a unified front. Everybody needs to decide what role they’re going to play, and go to work to get this down once and for all. We don’t need to worry about who’s going to get credit, who needs to get credit, when we save lives the people who are living get the credit. …

In Chicago, there needs to be an emergency meeting called with all the key stakeholders, so we can just put out all the differences and have everyone carve out an area to work in. Then I believe we’ll be a little bit more successfully in here in Chicago. …

Right now there’s a disconnect in the African-American community when it comes down to the youth and the older people. So somehow we need to find an opportunity to bridge the gap. If you go into communities like the West Side of Chicago, South Side, and some other parts of Chicago, you will see that the young people are out there, but the adults, the community residents, the homeowners — they need to do more work by pulling guys in and talking to them. You can’t stay in my house if you’re going to be shooting people. You need to put that gun down anyway; it’s not worth it. You can’t let the parents off the hook.

A 60 percent spike is extreme, but is this enough to rally people together like a “Trayvon Martin” moment?

… What happens is that after the red tape is taken down from the crime scene and the news story has passed away people go right back to the norm.

With a public health issue, it’s all about the thinking. Violence spawns like an infectious disease. Until we adjust the thinking on a bigger level, we’re going to continue to have problems. …

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