Chicago mounts campaign on gang violence. Public hearings, city task force aim to curb intimidation by involving community

Who controls Chicago's streets? In recent months a number of street gangs have been trying to convince residents and rival gangs that the ``turf'' in several neighborhoods is theirs. They back up claims with a combination of verbal bravado, scrawled graffiti, and weapons.

But with broad support and new determination the city of Chicago, its police department, and, most important, its citizens -- have begun to fight back in what may yet become an effective counterpunch to this urban guerrilla warfare.

Last year the number of gang-related killings here reached a high of 98. Homicide also has become the leading cause of death among Chicago's 11- to 20-year-olds. Many victims, such as high school basketball star Benjamin Wilson who was shot last November, have no gang connections.

Stepped-up gang recruitment efforts and threats here have increasingly been cited as reasons that some youths decide to drop out and their families to move to other communities.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's recently formed Task Force on Youth Crime Prevention plans to channel $1 million in city funds to block the turf war. The task force also hopes to raise $3.5 million more from the state and local corporations. In an effort to involve a spectrum of citizens and tailor plans to the neighborhood, the task force in January sponsored 25 public hearings in churches, schools, and meeting halls.

In all, some 850 Chicagoans testified. Many urged more police protection. ``We'd like to be able to walk the streets during the day,'' complained one West Side woman.

But many of the comments were pleas from leaders of social agencies and community groups for more volunteers to develop alternatives that would interest those who might otherwise be lured into gangs. Parents and neighbors were urged to care more about young people and set a higher standard.

Although some gangs are involved in the underworld economy of narcotics, auto theft, and prostitution, the foundations for a continually renewed membership are believed to stem from social and family problems.

At a meeting in a Lutheran church on the city's northwest side, one woman voiced the concern of many when she said, ``We're tired of these punks, but we feel the real problem is with parents who aren't watching their kids.''

``Gangs are their parents,'' observes Mike Polak, an elementary school assistant principal who urged more after-school programs. ``All the [federal] money goes to defense while the militia is in the streets,'' he says.

``A lot of these kids want to be good, but they've never learned how to behave or form constructive relationships,'' says Susanna Lang, a high school teacher in the city's ``Back of the [stock] Yards'' neighborhood. She says youngsters always stay late when she opens her classroom after school. ``We need to be willing as adults to give them our time and support and affection.''

The mayor's task force also has set up a 24-hour gang hot line and recently recommended establishing small roving teams of street workers whose chief job would be to head off gang violence and retaliation. A similar program was tried with considerable success recently in Philadelphia and for 10 months in Chicago's Humboldt Park, a Hispanic neighborhood where the murder rate has long been many times higher than the US average.

University of Chicago sociologist Irving Spergel, who conducted the Humboldt pilot project, says it took 16 street workers to do the job in that one neighborhood while Chicago expects to cover city problem areas with 20 workers. ``I think what we're doing in Chicago is good -- it's not just a police approach. But I hope it doesn't become just another public relations effort.''

The plan's most controversial feature is the possible hiring of selected former gang members as street workers.

``Some prior research suggests it can be a risky business -- it's too easy for them to develop their own power base and start playing their own games,'' says Daniel Rosenbaum, a Northwestern University research psychologist.

Colleen Hayden of the city's Department of Human Services says that no active gang members would be hired. But she concedes that nothing in the plan would ``preclude'' taking on former gang members who have ``gotten their lives together.''

The Windy City had a sour and memorable experience in the 1960s when some federal money aimed at resolving gang problems here was siphoned into the coffers of gangs hired by community organizations to help administer the program.

``We not only glamorized a lot of gangs in the '60s -- we financed them and made them much more sophisticated,'' says Deputy Chicago Police Superintendent Ira Harris.

Chicago's new plan is viewed by Superintendent Harris as an expansion of existing crime-prevention and police enforcement efforts. The department's year-old Community Gang Crime Control Program has, with the aid of parents and neighbors, carefully identified some 616 potential gang members and redirected them to cultural, recreational, and educational assistance -- or to job training programs.

As businesses have been persuaded to make job openings available, some 155 students have been placed in everything from fast-food to factory jobs. Not one has quit. ``This is not a panacea for the gang problem, but a lot of people have been helped.'' Harris says.

Chicago's clergy also is actively involved in the antigang effort. Many ministers have stepped up youth counseling. In December leaders of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago (who had conducted many of the funeral services for gang victims) pledged $250,000 to the fight. The pledge came despite the archdiocese's operational deficit, because it is considered ``crucially important.'

Efforts to arrest law-breaking gang members have also been strengthened by tougher state laws and more systematic prosecution efforts. Instituting a special gang-crimes unit has contributed to better researched cases, too. The Cook County state attorney's office has succeeded in convicting close to 500 gang members during the last three years.

Although the massive ``street sweep'' arrests of gang members and innocent youths in 1982 were stopped by an American Civil Liberties Union challenge, a recent Illinois law automatically allows 15- and 16-year-olds to be tried as adults if the crime is serious enough. New measures to tighten penalties for crimes committed on school grounds are being discussed.

Chicago's plan to include street workers in the battle against gangs is drawing hopeful, if still cautious, reviews from those who monitor the gang problem closely. Many of these observers stress that nothing will be effective without stepped-up citizen involvement.

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