Chicago’s gang problem has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Murders are half what they were in the early 1990s. The crack-cocaine era is gone, a time when street gangs flourished. Law enforcement locked up notorious gang leaders from that era. Some of today’s so-called gangs are actually small, splintered groups or crews.
But, police still use the term “gang-related.” Some residents inside Chicago neighborhoods, and some crime experts, say police are too loose with the term. They worry police can’t fight crime well if they don’t understand what it is.
WBEZ’s Natalie Moore reports for Chicago Tonight.
Malcolm Rashad met his best friend, Cornelius Jordan, playing on the block where they grew up in West Englewood. Last year, someone gunned down 26-year-old Jordan on the very same block. Rashad says his friend got caught in crossfire meant for someone else.
The Chicago Tribune reported that police suspected that the shooting was gang-related.
“When he died and I heard them say it was gang-related, I said he wasn’t even affiliated with any gang,” said Rashad. “He was a family man. He always kept his kids around and he was just a happy person. He always worked hard.”
Rashad says it is part of the burden of living in a high-crime neighborhood like Englewood. It’s easy to categorize crimes there as gang-related, but it may actually prevent police from understanding the violence.
Rashad is a security officer. He carries a gun for his job but says police still treat him with suspicion.
“Sometimes I get pulled over and I’ll be in my uniform. First thing they ask is, ‘do you have your gun on you?’” said Rashad. “I say, ‘wow, you see me with my uniform on, my badge on, my ID.’ I have license, insurance and I have a badge on the back of my car.”
Toussaint Reed was also a friend of the shooting victim, Cornelius Jordan. Reed has thought about why his friend’s death was branded as gang-related.
“The first one would be the fact that most of the guys that passed away or are killed are young. And that could be one factor,” said Reed. “The second factor is the neighborhood. The third one could be a stereotype of how that person looks or what does he have on? If he doesn’t have a shirt and tie on, it’s just automatically characterized as gang-related.”
Joe Gorman is commander of the gang investigation division for the Chicago Police Department.
“We don’t label members for the majority, they label themselves. They’re very proud of their gang and they’re self-admitted gang members,” said Gorman. “Secondly, there’s part of some investigative work that may identify a person as a gang member, whether it be through an investigation or whether it be be through different tattoos.”
Chicago Police distinguish between the terms “gang associated” and “gang motivated.” Gang-associated means the victim or offender is a gang member, regardless of whether the murder is actually tied to gang activity. Gang-motivated means the motive for the murder was directly related to gang activity.
The percentage of murders that are gang-motivated through June of this year is 53 percent. Gang-related shootings and murders would be closer to 80 percent.
LeVon Stone hears a different story about gangs and violence than the police. He’s the hospital response coordinator for CeaseFire, a violence interruption program. Stone goes to Northwestern, Stroger and Christ Hospitals to find out the backstory behind a victim’s shooting or stabbing.
“At Christ Hospital alone, we’ve seen over 500 patients a year,” said Stone. “And, to me, I would be lying to say 10 percent of them are gang-related. Strictly from what the patients are saying. Not from what I’m assuming. Not from my own speculation. Talking directly to patients, it’s interpersonal. The majority of the stuff that’s happening in the Chicago area is interpersonal.”
Interpersonal violence is a misunderstanding or an offense that’s turned violent. And it could be even harder to predict and control than gang violence.
“You’re riding in your car down the street, you’re in a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. You pull in front of someone’s house and you’re blowing the horn. Someone says, ‘hey, man, stop blowing your horn. Get out your car, park.’ It’s personal. He don’t know you, you don’t know him. It ain’t about what you ride, what you got on, none of that. It’s just someone feeling the need to tell you ‘don’t blow your horn here.’”
Twenty years ago, Stone was shot and paralyzed. It was during the peak of Chicago’s crack-cocaine trade. He says he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Stone says hospital victims don’t have any reason to lie because he’s not a cop. And, the work he does isn’t about finding the perpetrator. It’s about stopping retaliation.
That’s what Gorman says the department wants too.
“There’s no magic formula. And we, as an organization, drill down as best we can to prevent the next violent act, the retaliatory act,” said Gorman. “And if there isn’t a retaliatory act, then we can put that in the basket that this was over a girl. But if there becomes retaliation where it goes back and forth a little bit, then I would consider that to be in the gang-related basket.”
Northeastern Illinois University professor and gang expert Maurice McFarlin says emotions play a big role in Chicago’s violence.
“Some of it’s over drugs, but some of it’s over hurt feelings. Simply hurt feelings,” said McFarlin. “Some of it’s over girlfriends. Some of it is over people losing their money in other ways, maybe a gambling debt or something of that nature. So it’s really not so much gangs as it is, I would say, fragile people.”
McFarlin says how violence is branded in Chicago is important. It’s not just a game of semantics.
- Natalie Moore