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In Chicago, can community involvement combat gang violence?

An incident-filled spring triggers talk of how community involvement, perhaps in addition to more police on the streets, can combat gang violence.

By / Staff Writer / May 5, 2010

Investigators arrive at a residence on the southwest side of Chicago April 14 where a gunman had fatally shot four people and wounded two others. Chicagoans hope greater community involvement can reduce shootings and gang violence.

Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/AP

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Chicago

The challenges posed by gun violence in Chicago came into sharp focus last month with two incidents.

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On April 12, a 17-year-old was gunned down. As he lay dying, he refused to tell police the name of his murderer.

Then on April 21, a bullet killed a 20-month-old girl as she sat in a car. The alleged gunman, who turned himself in, reportedly intended to shoot her father.

Heightened gang violence and an unusually warm spring are both being blamed for a rise in homicides in the city, particularly on the South Side. By late last month, the homicide count for the year had reached 116 – 15 percent more than for the same period in 2009.

As Chicagoans mourn the multiple tragedies, they're asking: What needs to be done to stem the violence?

Two state lawmakers suggested to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) that the National Guard might be needed to curb the violence. Governor Quinn, as well as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, dismissed that idea.

Are more police needed on the streets? A number of people, starting with officers themselves, have called for this. Others, however, view such a call as rhetoric.

For many people, a deeper solution lies in more community involvement. At the least, they say, the code of silence that the dying 17-year-old observed needs to be broken. Another key could be more people joining hands to help prevent violence.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of these problems," says Dennis Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But force may be necessary, he notes: Chicago's dense concentration of "poverty and gangs and guns and drug markets" requires "a sizable and specialized response" such as increased SWAT teams and gang units.

Although violence has flared in the city this spring, it's worth noting that over a 10-year period, homicides in Chicago are actually down. Between 1999 and 2009, homicides fell 29 percent. In addition, emphasizes Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis, this season's problem is not widespread. It's concentrated in less than 9 percent of all city blocks.

But the problems that cost the 20-month-old her life this spring are deep. Some critics of the police are zeroing in on the number of officers, saying that Chicago is woefully behind comparable major cities in fortifying police ranks.

Union president Mark Donahue is pressing for more officers on the streets. "Without having the proper resources and proper personnel, your response time is going to be slower, and your proactive police presence in the neighborhoods is going to be less," he says.

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