As gang warfare escalates in Chicago, can Facebook be a help?

At least 6 of the 10 homicides in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend are linked to gangs, police say. City officials on Tuesday laid out a strategy that includes tracking known gang members on Facebook and Twitter.

Matt Rourke/AP
In this May 16 photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad. City officials in Chicago laid out a strategy on Tuesday to use Facebook and Twitter to help track known gang members.

Chicago police are turning to social media and other alternative methods to try to prevent new gangland murders, after criminal gangs engaged in a four-day killing spree over Memorial Day weekend.

Ten people were killed and 43 were shot in Chicago between Friday and late Monday. Last year, four people were killed in the city over the same weekend. Seventy percent of the shootings this year are gang-related, involving some of the 600 known gang factions, city officials say.

At a press conference Tuesday in Washington Park on Chicago's problematic South Side, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled several initiatives designed to monitor gang activity and to target businesses, such as liquor and convenience stores, known to be locales that are prone to street violence. Some of the new methods had launched in April; since then, the city has identified 30 businesses as problematic and is fast-tracking them with disciplinary actions that could lead to license revocation.

“We’ve got to get ourselves onto proactive footing," Mayor Emanuel said, singling out liquor stores. 

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Chicago’s approach to gangs involves “gang audits,” a system the city's 23 police districts use to monitor gang activity and to accumulate data about gangs. The monitoring includes tracking known gang members via Twitter and Facebook.

Gangland homicides “are not a new problem” in Chicago, said Superintendent McCarthy on Wednesday. He described the initiatives as “a new solution we’re applying to it.”

The homicides that took place over the long weekend are probably retaliatory killings, McCarthy said. At least six of the 10 homicides are linked to gangs, he said.

It’s often difficult to certify whether gun violence is directly related to gang retaliation, although police can draw conclusions on the circumstantial basis of the victim’s history and the neighborhood where the crime occurred, cautions James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

“It’s speculation,” Mr. Fox says. “But what we can do is identify neighborhoods where homicides occur as those that tend to be where gangs flourish. Not all these homicides are gang-related, but it’s clear some of them are.”

For example, a killing that starts with a teenage argument over a girlfriend is often categorized, mistakenly, as gang-related because one of the teens happens to be in a gang. Youth homicide is often “in the gray zone when you have a lot of gang-affiliated youth who are having teenage disputes,” says Harold Pollack, a co-director of the University of Chicago crime lab, which analyzes crime data for the police and for research. 

At least 200 homicides took place in Chicago since the first of the year, a jump from the 134 in 2011 during the same period. Police data show that shootings are also up 14 percent over last year: 851 so far in 2012 compared with 747 in 2011 through late May.

Comparisons of homicide statistics at midyear are often problematic, because they don't account for factors such as weather, says Fox. Comparing current year data with a previous year's data can also be misleading, especially if the previous year reflected a dip in the rate of violence.

Assessing whether Chicago's new strategies are working is a long-term prospect, mostly because homicide statistics are prone to short-term variability, says Mr. Pollack.

“There are going to be periodic fluctuations in homicides that don’t really tell us these policies are working or not. The question will be the quality of execution and whether the size or complexity of Chicago means some of these strategies have to be modified to fit our conditions,” Pollack says. “We have to approach this in the long run rather than the short run.”

Chicago has developed a national reputation for testing new ways to combat gang violence. CeaseFire, the Chicago-based organization known for efforts to prevent gang violence using data and on-the-ground intervention, expanded into New Orleans earlier this year after officials there asked it to try to help reduce the soaring homicide rate.

Two summers ago, the Chicago Police Department stirred controversy by warning local gang leaders that certain gang-sanctioned actions, such as the shooting of rival gang members, would result in prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law that is broad in how it applies criminal penalties to and civil legal action against criminal organizations, not just murder charges against the actual gunman.

The prevention efforts announced Tuesday are laudable, says Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University here, but the public needs to understand homicide numbers will not retreat until there is a comprehensive effort to treat the problem as a public health issue.

“The police can do very little overall in making any inroads in regards to homicides in the city. They would have to be on every corner and every house to make a significant impact. That doesn’t mean the police should put their hands up in the air and do nothing, but we have to change the quality of life in those communities,” Mr. Lurigio says.

He suggests that city officials work more diligently over time with churches, local businesses, and community leaders to create economic alternatives to the drug trade in certain neighborhoods.

“The factors that give rise to high homicide rates come from deeply rooted problems in those neighborhoods that the police cannot solve,” Lurigio says.

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