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Two communities plan “all-in” safety initiatives

For years, the gang killings and other violent crimes have taken their toll, undercutting the hard work of building stronger communities. The headlines blare about the baby Jonylah Watkins, shot in her father’s lap, and the teenager Hadiya Pendleton, killed in a neighborhood park, but every week there are other stories that do just as much damage.

The victims are not just the innocents or the gang-involved criminals who have been shot and killed, but all the students and parents and business owners who live with the fear of gunshots and gang warfare, who go about daily life in the shadows of violence.

Photo: Claretian Associates

The 14th annual Ecumenical Easter Service, scheduled for this Saturday, March 30, will begin with an anti-violence procession led by the South Chicago CeaseFire staff from Claretian Associates. For more information, please click here.

Despite a steady decline in overall crime, the murder rate rose in 2012, to 510 homicides, most of them in poor South and West Side neighborhoods. And that’s just the surface layer. Underneath are thousands of non-fatal shootings and stabbings, and tens of thousands of other violent crimes, often highly concentrated in “hot spots” like the 87th Street corridor in South Chicago, or 13th Street in North Lawndale.

The violence is corrosive. “We had group interviews with 40 youth and what I heard was that everybody in our group had had someone in their family killed,” said Tracie Worthy, NCP manager at Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC). “Six had dropped out of school, and that was because of a death of a father or uncle or cousin. They didn’t know where to get support, so they sunk into depression.”

A neighborhood-led response
Starting this spring, LISC Chicago and its neighborhood partners will launch an all-in, all-at-once approach to reducing violent crime, hoping to turn the tide in North Lawndale and South Chicago.

With seed funding from Allstate Insurance, the Neighborhood Safety Initiative (NSI) will activate multiple networks – everything from block clubs and job counselors, to Chicago Police Department bike cops and City of Chicago departments – to change the culture in those neighborhoods.

This graphic captures the virtuous cycle that LISC Chicago and its partners believe the Neighborhood Safety Initiative will set in motion in North Lawndale and South Chicago.

“We’ve been building up to this for years,” said Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago’s deputy director for programs and its liaison to the Chicago Police Department. “This is more than organizing basketball games on the streets, or beefing up youth programs. It’s an attempt to create true collaboration among all the groups affected by crime, to build up the community’s capacity, and to provide a framework for accountability.”

NSI will not be a quick fix, added Blackwell, which is why LISC has committed to at least three years of support to the two communities, and to other neighborhoods as additional resources are raised. NSI will activate and strengthen the neighborhood networks and employ best practices that show promise for crime reduction. But it will also add other elements typically lacking in such efforts, including strong local leadership, police involvement from commanders to beat cops, and additional support from both local and citywide advisory boards.

“This is an important step in addressing the violence issue,” said Victoria Dinges, vice president corporate relations - public social responsibility of Allstate Insurance. “What’s promising is that NSI will build on LISC’s existing networks and expand them to new partners.”

Safe South Chicago
Much of the NSI structure has been roughed in already in South Chicago, where the LISC lead agency, Claretian Associates, has been working with neighborhood partners and 4th District Cmdr. Berscott Ruiz to develop strategies that will be implemented this summer and fall.

Photo: Courtesy Lawndale Christian Development Corp.

B-Ball on the Block attracts big crowds with sports, arts, food--and safety provided by a visible police presence.

The former steel-mill neighborhood is home turf for two major gangs – the Latin Kings and Black P Stones – and at least five smaller gang factions that together have created a brutal street culture of drug trafficking, boundary skirmishes and retaliatory shootings.

There were 14 homicides in South Chicago in 2012, up from four in 2011. A police gang audit identified about 175 active gang members. The department and community leaders believe that 80 percent of violent crime stems from the gang culture.

Claretian and its neighborhood partners have been working closely with the 4th District since 2009, when three youth were gunned down while walking home from school. The South Chicago Chamber of Commerce has organized businesses to help stem burglaries on Commercial Avenue, and block clubs were mobilized to stop a “Brick Squad” of youth who were breaking into cars.

“It’s not the gangs alone,” said Angela Hurlock, Claretian’s executive director. “It is also the lack of education and jobs, and the kids at Bowen High School not finishing school, so they can’t get jobs.”

The 4th District’s executive officer, Capt. Ruth Wedster, noted a “new dynamic” of very young offenders, from 10 to 15 years old. More than 70 percent of the 2012 violent-crime arrests in a South Chicago target area were of individuals aged 21 or under. The burglary crew that broke the window at Radio Shack included a 9-year-old boy.

Reducing those types of crimes requires more than enforcement. That’s why the local police have “adopted” a group of children from the nearby Trumbull Park Homes housing development, and why the community organized a “Nosey Neighbors” campaign that engages residents in safety-oriented activities such as music fests and block parties. It all contributes to building a culture of trust, and one that encourages residents to report crime to police. “It makes a big difference to the CPD if the community wants the help from us,” said Cmdr. Ruiz.

Culture shifts
The Chicago Police already combine sophisticated intelligence gathering with special enforcement teams to address violence and retaliatory shootings. They also use “call-ins” to bring known gang offenders into meetings with law enforcement and neighborhood leaders to urge a stop to the violence. Supportive services are offered to help offenders stay out of trouble, and aggressive enforcement is promised if they don’t.

But that hasn’t been enough. Crime researchers, police and community leaders all agree that major culture shifts are required to rebuild the community structures and norms – known as collective efficacy – that will help youth resist the gang culture and lead to sustained reductions in crime.

A huge challenge is convincing residents to call police when they witness criminal activity. “Neighbors will say ‘Why should I call when the drug dealing is right out in the open; the police must know where it is,’ ” said LCDC’s Tracie Worthy. “But if you don’t call, the police won’t come. And when you go to a CAPS meeting and complain, the first thing the police will do is look up the calls for service and show you that they didn’t receive any.”

Photo: Courtesy LCDC

10th District Cmdr. Maria Peña greets a group of boys, while other police officers hang out, at a North Lawndale street event last summer.

One reason people don’t get involved is gang intimidation around “being a snitch.” One crime hot spot in North Lawndale is the 1300-block of South Christiana, but when police organized a meeting to address the issue, attendance was sparse. “It takes a lot of meetings with people to get their trust,” said Kim Jackson, executive director of LCDC. “We have an opportunity to shape this whole conversation and how things should go, but it’s going to take some work.”

Building better relationships between police and neighbors will get a boost this year as the department trains all 12,500 of its sworn officers in “police legitimacy and procedural justice,” which stresses respectful treatment of residents and better explanations of why a traffic stop or other enforcement action is being taken.

The program has support from the very top – Police Supt. Garry McCarthy – but both neighborhood leaders and police officials recognize that it will take years of culture change to build trusting and effective relationships.

Jobs, youth, counseling
The Neighborhood Safety Initiative is a complex undertaking that will require participation across dozens of organizations and sectors of society. Among the big drivers:

  • Jobs – Many crimes are committed because residents need money to survive and don’t have the training or life skills for traditional work. So a big need is for transitional employment programs that connect participants to education or skills programs.
  • Youth – Young people in low-income communities are exposed to gangs from an early age and may see them as a supportive structure that offers opportunities to be protected, earn money and gain prestige. Counteracting that force will require equally strong youth programs that provide positive alternatives to gang recruitment.
  • Trauma – Urban violence, like war, can create Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and living in poverty can cause “Adverse Childhood Experiences” that have lasting negative effects. In both cases, mental-health services can be a big help, but they must be available locally and be trusted by those who need them.
  • Research – A wealth of best-practice research is available to inform the NSI work, but community leaders may not be familiar with what would work locally. NSI will engage professional researchers to help create and fine-tune local strategies.
  • Support – Neighborhoods and individuals can better address crime issues if they face fewer every day pressures of broken-down housing, inadequate schools or poor health. Programs that solve these problems are critical to reaching safety goals.

Photo: Courtesy LCDC

North Lawndale youth wear T-shirts that promote peace, unity and respect.

“This is going to take a tremendous amount of effort, over a period of years,” said LISC’s Keri Blackwell. “But what has been done so far has not been enough. We’ve got to build real long-term collaboration and make better use of existing resources to change the course of these neighborhoods. And the really promising thing is that we’ve got the right people at the table to get this done.”

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