Report calls for new strategies to contend with Chicago gangs, violence

The nature of gang violence in Chicago has been changing but policies and practices to address it have not, according to a new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.

In the report, The Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago: A Research-Based Reorientation of Violence Prevention and Intervention Policy, leading gang researchers call for a “readjustment” of public policies and dialogue regarding the city’s gangs, drugs and violence, and offer strategies to deal with fragmented gangs and high rates of homicide.

“We should stop scapegoating gangs and focus on the real problem of devastated neighborhoods,” said report co-author John Hagedorn, retired UIC professor of criminology, law and justice and James J. Stukel Fellow at the Great Cities Institute.

Key points from the report, which contains insights delivered by the researchers and street-level experts at the institute’s The Fracturing of Gangs Conference in April 2018 and supplementary post-event research, are:

Persistently high levels of homicide in communities of concentrated poverty

  • Chicago’s homicide trends are comparable to those of Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee and much higher than those of “global cities” like New York City and Los Angeles.
  • Race and concentrated poverty, more than gangs, most strongly correlate with homicide.
  • Although the population of blacks, Latinos, and whites in Chicago is relatively equal, more than 75 percent of homicide victims have been black.

Gangs transforming, but violence prevention and intervention strategies static

  • Many black gangs today are horizontally organized, neighborhood-based “cliques” that have little or no formal leadership structure; as a result, violence is more spontaneous and tends to be initiated by individuals, rather than ordered by gang leaders or hierarchies.
  • The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, which resulted in the demolition of housing projects, is a principal reason for the fracturing of black gangs.
  • Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 contributed to increased violence.
  • Law enforcement strategies based on conspiracy-related prosecutions of gang leaders and members are out-of-date and counterproductive to horizontal cliques and how they operate.
  • Misconceptions of gang structures and how they function are a factor in low homicide clearance rates.

Interpersonal conflict a more prevalent reason for violence

  • Anti-violence policies and programs should emphasize mediation of interpersonal conflict and conflict resolution among youth, as well as economic development in distressed communities.
  • Drug market violence remains a major problem, but causes for violence varies within and between neighborhoods.
  • Unhealthy group dynamics and hypersensitivity to taking offense feed into cycles of retaliatory violence, which differs from the gang wars for the 1990s.
  • Intervention strategies must address identities, values and behaviors that can be described as “hypermasculine.”
  • Persistent disinvestment and concentrated poverty is a result of an ongoing, institutionalized assault on the dignity and self-worth of black youth and is correlated with violence.

The report’s authors call for more resources for housing, health and education, and emphasize the need for political leadership to “rebuild our neighborhoods and provide both increased safety and hope to neighborhoods of concentrated African-American poverty.”

Similar research in the future should aim to examine Latino gangs and to better understand the differences between West Side and South Side gangs, note the researchers.

“There are significant differences between West Side and South Side African-American gangs,” they said. “In addition, Hispanic gangs were not as affected by the diffusion of CHA residents, and as a result, they have not fractured in the same way.”

Report co-authors are Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute and UIC professor of urban planning and policy; Roberto Aspholm of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville; Andrew Papachristos of Northwestern University; and Lance Williams of Northeastern Illinois University.

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