Gangs vs. Chicago police: an open feud over blame for street violence

Gang representatives in Chicago held a press conference Thursday to explain why gangs cannot be held solely responsible for stopping street violence, which has escalated this summer.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor
posted September 2, 2010 at 7:14 pm EDT

Chicago — The number of police officers shot in Chicago is escalating, most recently two wounded early Wednesday, and gang leaders here say they are being unfairly blamed for the escalating violence that has rocked the city this year.

In an unusual move, gang representatives held a press conference Thursday on the city’s far West Side to tell their side of the story – in the face of law-enforcement threats to come after them via a federal statute that targets organized crime. Their point: They can’t put a stop all street violence, and Chicago police themselves have a lot to answer for in their own behavior.

Street violence “is not always organized. It’s spontaneous,” community activist Wallace Bradley, a former member of the notorious Gangster Disciple gang, told the Sun-Times Thursday.

The press conference follows on the heels of an explosive weekend report from the Chicago Sun-Times about an Aug. 17 secret meeting between local gang leaders and federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies – including Police Superintendent Jody Weis. At the meeting, authorities reportedly said that if one more gang member shoots another, they would prosecute the gangs’ members and leaders – not just the assailants – under the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act. Gang members were also told to expect more parole visits and traffic stops in their neighborhoods, according to the newspaper’s report.

The revelation about the meeting has touched off a ferocious debate over how best to address the rising violence and the gang problem in Chicago. Mayor Richard M. Daley has defended the summit. But many local alderman criticize the approach. It’s an “admission” that Chicago police “can’t control the streets,” said Alderman Bob Fioretti. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) said a more sound approach is better enforcement of assault weapon bans.

So far this summer, three police officers have been killed, and two were wounded early Wednesday while executing a search warrant for weapons. Chicago’s homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.

Buttressing the gang representatives’ views, some who study gangs say that Chicago’s have become much more decentralized than they used to be – and that the former tightly controlled hierarchies have devolved into loosely affiliated splinter groups battling over local turf.

The organizational breakdown means younger gang members feel they “don’t have to answer to nobody,” says Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, which works to prevent neighborhood violence. “They form cliques on the blocks and feel they’re untouchable, basically because no one can govern them.” Random killings that result from spraying bullets into a crowd are not typical of gang operations, he says.

“No gang leader would sanction the killing of a kid. They would not do that. Those are people operating on their own,” Mr. Hardiman says.

For their part, gang leaders on Thursday said they were coerced into meeting with law enforcement officials last month, and they complained that authorities’ efforts to blame them for the rising violence – and threats to dog their members – verge on violating their constitutional rights.

Police Superintendent Weis “is not interested in solving [violence] from a community perspective,” Mark Carter, a former gang member who helped organize the conference, told the Sun-Times on Wednesday. He criticizes the police department and Mayor Daley for using techniques that gang members feel are harsh and unjust.

Tension between the black community and Chicago police is not new, but it is particularly high since the conviction in late June of former Chicago Police Comdr. John Burge. Mr. Burge was convicted of lying to authorities, but his federal trial documented decades of police torture under his watch.

The police will continue to have a perception problem here until Weis speaks out about the systemic abuse revealed in the Burge trial and roots out others who support it, says John Hagedorn, who researches gangs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“You don’t torture people for decades and get away with it and have the consent of silence within the police and not expect it to have an effect,” says Mr. Hagedorn. “This accountability thing should cut two ways.”

Burge’s first trial in 1989 on police brutality charges resulted in a hung jury, and he was not retried before the statute of limitations expired. He was subsequently charged in 2008 with perjury and obstruction of justice related to the brutality case. That federal trial, prosecuted by the office led by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, described hundreds of cases of abuse in the 1970s and ’80s that cost the city $19.8 million in settlement claims. It resulted in the state pardoning four men serving time on death row.

Burge’s perjury conviction continues to resonate in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where attitudes about it among people are “raw,” says University of Illinois’s Hagedorn.

“It’s there at a conscious and a subconscious level within the community. You’ve got one guy convicted of perjury and that’s just one guy. What about all the other people who were there who knew it? This is not being talked about by anybody,” he says.

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