Chicago tries rapid response to curb gangs

Police crack down is part of an effort to stem the worst violence spree in the nation.

As police Commander Dana Starks contemplates the problems in his violence-plagued district on Chicago's West Side, a color-coded map on his office wall shows what he's up against.

The map displays the territories of the dozen known gangs operating in the 11th district - from the Cobras to the Black Souls to the Latin Kings. The Vice Lords alone are split into seven different factions.

Even more ominous than the number of gangs, though, is what they're doing: They've helped push the murder rate in the district to 28 so far this year - the most in the city. "We've really been trying to deal with this situation," Mr. Starks says.

He's about to get some help. Chicago is launching a new initiative aimed at stemming a rash of urban violence and shedding the city's image as one of the gang capitals of the United States.

For the first time, police here are going to conduct a daily assessment of crime trends - a move intended to allow the rapid deployment of specialized gang units to violent neighborhoods. The idea is to prevent gang-related retaliatory shootings or battles over drug turf, which has been a major reason for the recent surge in violence.

"You can't be thinking weeks or months ahead when they are thinking hours and days ahead," says Philip Cline, the Chicago Police Department's first deputy superintendent. "You must be able to assess daily trends and activity by the hour."

Chicago is hardly alone in dealing with a renewed outbreak of gang violence. Despite an overall drop in violent crime in many cities, gang-related homicides have stubbornly defied the trend in a number of urban areas. They helped contribute to a surge in murders in Los Angeles in 2002. Gang violence has also bedeviled Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and Oakland, Calif., within the past year as well.

But few places are facing the depth of the mayhem of Chicago at the moment. Police say roughly half of Chicago's more than 272 homicides so far this year can be attributed to gang violence - a murder total that has been leading the nation. Chicago had the most murders of any city in the country in 2001 and was a close second to L.A. last year. This disturbing trend, coupled with a spate of high-profile gang-related killings this year, including the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy as he walked home from a cleanup at a local park, has spurred the city and police into action.

Many locals welcome the fresh infusion of police. When Ed Smith, a city alderman, surveys his ward on the west side of Chicago, he sees pockets of promise. But he also sees tell-tale signs of urban decay. There are weed-choked lots and vacant storefronts, and few if any grocery stores, banks, or restaurants. The area is chock-ablock with lounges that offer late-night drinks, currency exchanges that charge steep fees to cash a check, and dingy shops that advertise "food & liquor." Some businesses never returned after riots in 1968.

Gangs have filled the void, and on some blocks, drug trafficking flourishes. "The gangs are very well organized," says Mr. Smith. "They have guys who show up every day just as if they're going to their job."

Needed: a permanent presence

While many residents welcome the new police presence, some feel it doesn't go far enough. They have been dealing with gang crime for years and simply want a larger, permanent police presence.

"As soon as police leave, bam, the criminals are back. They have got a whole new group on the payroll selling drugs," says Alderman Walter Burnett, who represents a West Side area that includes the notorious Cabrini Green public housing project.

Mayor Richard M. Daley initially supported a plan that would have shifted more officers to high-crime areas, but politics got in the way. Aldermen in low-crime areas resisted and the plan died. The city said undercover police and the rapid response teams will be more effective at deterring crime than an increase in beat cops. Burnett and others are unconvinced.

"Those of us with a lot of crime in our areas never think it's enough," he says.

Roots of a gang problem

Several factors lie behind Chicago's gang problem that make it among the worst in the nation. For one thing, the city has always been one of the most segregated, with minorities boxed into certain neighborhoods and warehoused in public housing high-rises. That led to high concentrations of poverty, particularly on the south and west sides, exacerbated when manufacturing jobs started to disappear en masse, says Greg Scott, who teaches courses on criminology, street gangs, and drug trafficking at DePaul University.

And many of the gangs are highly structured organizations that have been around for decades. Mr. Scott doesn't see how the police initiative can make a difference without addressing some of these underlying problems. In fact, be believes that "going in and basically busting up gang boundaries" will just create more violence as members move into new turf.

Others blame the enduring violence on the proliferation of hand guns in the city, which are actually illegal in Chicago, and the release of thousands of ex-offenders back into poor neighborhoods.

Get these kids more jobs

Tio Hardiman, a coordinator for the antiviolence group CeaseFire Chicago, also believes more must be done to attack the root causes, such as a lack of educational and economic opportunity. He says the city may be well-intentioned, but that simply targeting gangs won't work. "It's easy to go out and make arrests," says Mr. Hardiman. "Let us collectively come to the table and try to stop this problem."

Chicago police claim they've done that, and say the recent initiative is just one aspect of an overall strategy to fight crime.

Out on the streets, residents certainly recall better days. "I remember the vibrant commercial strip of Madison Street, shopping for my Easter dress there," says Mildred Wiley, a life long west side resident. "I remember the bowling alley, the skating rink, and the Roosevelt Theater."

All are gone now. She welcomes a crack-down on gangs and drug dealing, but says the area also needs investment from banks and businesses so that young people can do more than "graduate to the corner."

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