A tale of 3 cities: LA and NYC outpace Chicago in curbing violence
CAPTIONThree cities, three approaches to crime
CAPTIONStemming gun violence in Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, its gang strategies appear to be paying off as police and former gang members work together.
As summer waned in recent weeks, bringing to an end what is often the most violent season of the year, New York City officials tallied 239 people killed in homicides. Los Angeles police counted 201 killed in about the same time period.
But in Chicago, a city whose population is dwarfed by both major coastal cities, the death toll is far more grim, with 325 killed in homicides by Sept. 6.
The numbers tell a tragic, nagging story for Chicago: Violence here far outpaces the nation's two larger cities, and has for more than a decade.
Tribune reporters recently spent time in both New York and Los Angeles to try to understand what led to their steep reduction in violent crime and how those efforts might apply here. The answers are complex. Not even criminologists agree.
New York's stunning decline in violent crime coincided with new policing strategies in the 1990s that tracked crime hot spots, flooded problem neighborhoods with cops and put pressure on commanders to bring their communities under control. Meanwhile, unlike in Chicago's segregated neighborhoods on the South and West sides, many of New York's communities have seen an influx of new people and money, either through gentrification or immigration, that has discouraged criminal elements from returning.
After Los Angeles made national headlines for its gang-fueled violence, police there embarked on a new strategy aimed at improving relations with citizens in the hardest-hit communities where anti-police sentiment was widespread. Former gang members are now used to broker peace; detectives talk with neighborhood leaders and crime victims at anti-violence meetings; and community patrol officers hit the street with a mandate to improve community relations.
In an interview with the Tribune, Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said he's already adopted several initiatives that were successful in Los Angeles and New York, but the results have so far been mixed. He also blamed lax state gun laws and lenient penalties for illegal gun carriers as one of the main frustrations in trying to reduce violence in Chicago.
Experts have long linked crime in Chicago to its history of entrenched segregation, which has left generations of families mired in poverty and hopelessness.
"It makes the gang problem almost impossible to solve because you can't compete with what the gangs can offer these folks," said William Sampson, a sociology professor at DePaul University.
LOS ANGELES: Drops in homicides show gang strategy is paying off, officials say
By Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune
LOS ANGELES -- The shade in the South Bureau community room offered relief from the late-summer heat wave as participants assembled around conference tables for the emergency meeting. Along with the heat had come a mini crime wave — 40 shot, 10 fatally, in South Los Angeles over 11 days in what was about to become the most violent August in nearly a decade.
Capt. Cory Palka leaned forward over the table and in a stern but calm voice spoke to the mix of clergy, business owners, community organizers and, most notably, former gang members.
"What we're seeing is a shooting happen, and by the time we can respond … a second shooting has already happened," Palka said. "It has created a crisis in this community. But we have brought enforcement and resources that have the ability to occupy and suppress a community. I don't want to create a police state."
With an outbreak of violence between rivals spilling over gang borders, the LAPD had flooded the potential hot spots in South Los Angeles with hundreds of additional officers. But the move by top commanders to call the emergency meeting reflected another strategy that the department has increasingly relied on in recent years — enlisting former gang members to help with what seems to be an intractable problem.
A look into how the Los Angeles Police Department and community groups take on gun violence. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Both Chicago and Los Angeles attribute the bulk of their violence to an entrenched, historic gang problem. Over more than the past two decades, though, Los Angeles has seen far steeper drops in homicides. Amid the crack epidemic in 1992, homicides totaled 1,092 in Los Angeles and 943 in Chicago, but last year the numbers had dropped to 260 homicides in Los Angeles, compared with 407 in Chicago.
Even with this year's uptick in violence, gang-related homicides in Los Angeles have fallen by 30 percent since 2008.
Gang strategies appear to be paying off for Los Angeles as police and former gang members work together to combat violent crime. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
LAPD officials believe those numbers show their gang strategy is paying off, but experts caution it has yet to be put to a rigorous evaluation.
It's part of a fundamental shift by the LAPD to improve its relations in the communities hit hardest by violence, an effort that began a decade ago, according to David Kennedy, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice who works with Chicago police on anti-violence efforts.
During the last days in August, the strategies could be seen playing out on Los Angeles streets. Former gang members huddled with police on street corners. At homicide scenes, specialized LAPD community patrol officers comforted victims' family members and spoke with residents on edge. Community organizations and crime victims at anti-violence meetings were joined by department detectives who patiently listened and answered questions.
Some of those involved say the changes were driven by a federal consent decree the department faced in 2001 after years of police misconduct and abuse. And no one suggests these approaches alone have reduced violence in Los Angeles to lows that stand out from Chicago and the rest of the nation.
But everyone from police brass to cynical former gang members believe they have crafted a way to tackle gang violence even as they improve relations that remain frayed by years of tension.
The gang strategies here have drawn the interest of Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who in a recent interview said he had dispatched a top police official to Los Angeles to learn more.
"Everything we know about procedural justice and legitimacy says that when communities — including offenders and potential offenders — respect the police more and trust the police more, violent crimes go down," said Kennedy, an expert on violence reduction strategies.
A tricky relationship
Behind a black tarp on a busy stretch of Century Boulevard, detectives in dress shirts and jackets crowded into a tiny yard in front of a modest white house. In sweltering heat, they worked a grim scene — two men shot dead in broad daylight.
Residents trickled onto the block as word spread of the latest shooting. Tensions appeared on the rise. Days earlier, there had been a shooting around the corner.
A woman, a niece of one homicide victim, ducked under yellow crime scene tape to get to her car, but police ordered her back, prompting her to loudly chastise officers.
Such a confrontation could easily have led to her being restrained and arrested.
But in Los Angeles, commanders like Phil Tingirides are pushing a different approach, preaching patience and calm even in such tension-filled moments instead of acting with imprudence.
As Tingirides approached the homicide scene, he fist-bumped the victim's relative and shared a laugh, even if she still seemed a bit wary of him. Tingirides had met the woman just minutes earlier calming a confrontation at the other end of the block.
Later, as he stood on the block, Tingirides explained that arresting her would have been counterproductive.
"All you do is close doors," he said.
As the afternoon stretched on, another LAPD tactic was on display — its reliance on gang interventionists. In between calming tensions with residents, Tingirides chatted with two interventionists about a delicate request. The loved ones of the victims wanted to view the bodies before they were removed from the block.
An interventionist known as "Big Mike" sweated in the heat as he shuttled between the family and the LAPD detectives, keeping the lines of communication open.
Using former gang members for outreach work is certainly not unique to Los Angeles. But unlike Chicago, the program is funded at a robust $25 million a year and administered out of the mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development.
The interventionists — trained, certified and paid by the city — quash rumors, calm tensions and broker peace, all in an effort to prevent retaliatory shootings. They have the cellphone numbers of high-level police officials to communicate when violence breaks out.
"It has been a difficult struggle," said Skipp Townsend, a veteran interventionist. "People in the community look at us like, 'What are you doing?' And the police will look at us like, 'Why are you hanging out with ... baby shooters?' It just doesn't happen in one meeting. And it takes being transparent. The trust comes after we continue to do what we say we will do."
Despite the close working relationship, some boundaries remain. Police don't share investigative details such as names of suspects and interventionists don't reveal details they hear on the street.
In Chicago, the Police Department has had a strained relationship with CeaseFire, which carries out similar outreach on the city's most troubled streets with its "violence interrupters," often former gang members. Since its contract with the city ended in 2013 after just one year, the anti-violence group operates independently of City Hall, and its interrupters do not work directly with police as they respond to violence.
Indeed, McCarthy, Chicago's police superintendent, said in the interview he is about to launch a pilot program using a similar model to LA's in which former gang members are vetted and trained to assist police in trying to quell violence.
On an officer's arm
South Central's bloodshed continued into the night. By early afternoon the next day, Tingirides called the emergency meeting. Crime stats with maps of the shootings were handed out as he laid out the dilemma.
"I gotta tell ya, I'm hurt, I'm angry and I'm tired," said Tingirides, looking directly at the interventionists. "And I do not like hugging mamas who just lost their sons. And I have done a lot of that in the last two days, so I need help from everybody in this room."
Over the next two hours, the interventionists spoke of their frustration at not learning of shootings or arrests fast enough so they could intervene effectively. They also complained that not all the interventionists were living up to expectations.
Assistant Chief Michel Moore, who oversees the department's weekly CompStat crime analysis meetings, acknowledged in an interview that there had been early resistance to the idea of police and former gang members working together. But formalizing training in 2008 helped convince cops, he said.
Tingirides pointed to Watts, the only South Central neighborhood spared in the August outbreak of shootings, as evidence that gang intervention, combined with the new community strategies, is working.
The reasons for the improvements can be complex, difficult to pinpoint. One police officer even credited the installation of security cameras.
But Watts, infamous for rioting 50 years ago, also has an involved community that came together after a spike in violence in 2006 and formed a gang task force that meets weekly. Gang interventionists also work its streets, and The LAPD launched an innovative neighborhood policing program in Watts nearly four years ago.
About 55 officers are now assigned to the Community Safety Partnership, working out of public housing developments. Officers commit to five-year stints and patrol like a typical beat cop, answering radio calls, enforcing the law and preserving the peace.
But they are encouraged to go out of their way to knock on doors, introduce themselves to residents and find other ways to break down the barriers between police and the public. Some head up a youth running club or a gardening project for seniors — all while on duty.
Back on Century Boulevard, the detectives had finished their work about four hours after the bodies of the two men in their 40s had been discovered. So, too, had Big Mike, the interventionist who had negotiated a police escort for victims' relatives who wanted to see the bodies.
One by one, officers took the family members by the arm and led each to behind a raised sheet in a scene likely not common in Chicago.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God," a bystander cried out in a low, soft voice.
Moments later, a woman doubled over in pain after she had viewed her loved one's body.
Weeping in the shade of a tree, she continued to lean on an officer's arm for support.
NEW YORK: From dangerous and destitute to safer and more stable
By Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune
NEW YORK CITY -- The punctuating blare of Spanish music blasted throughout Washington Heights on a sunny day. A young food vendor chopped a plantain with a large knife. Constant foot traffic moved through the bustling thoroughfares, dotted with hair salons, bodegas, Caribbean restaurants and linen shops. Patrons congregated around upscale taverns and trendy coffee shops.
On a recent warm, late-summer weekend, this Upper Manhattan neighborhood, once a violence-ridden epicenter of the illegal drug trade in the Northeast, experienced not a single shooting — a remarkable turnaround from when drug customers flocked there from well-to-do suburbs.
"You could buy a kilo of heroin on a car hood on 163rd," recalled Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, a Bronx native who oversaw the area in the 1990s as a New York police commander.
Washington Heights is just one of many New York neighborhoods that over the past two decades has gradually gone from dangerous and destitute to safer and more stable, part of a growing wave of urban renewal that helped lead to a dramatic drop in crime. Much of the gentrification coincided with a shift in law enforcement focus to shutting down illegal drug markets, flooding the most dangerous parts of the city with cops and holding its police leaders more accountable for crimes committed in neighborhoods they managed.
New York City residents, community activists and politicians talk about how the city's violent crime rate has fallen since the 1990s and the struggles that remain. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Many of Chicago's neighborhoods have undergone demographic shifts of their own and police have brought in many of the same strategies that were hailed during McCarthy's days in New York, but the two cities have seen markedly different results.
In the last quarter century, New York City has experienced an 85 percent reduction in homicides, by the far the biggest turnaround of any large U.S. city. In 1990, during the nationwide crack epidemic, 2,262 people were slain. Last year, the city recorded 333 homicides.
Chicago, meanwhile, a city more than three times smaller than New York in population, ended 2014 with 407 homicides. While that marks an impressive reduction in violence since the mid-1990s, when homicides peaked at more than 900 a year, police efforts to eradicate drug markets and reduce violence in impoverished and racially segregated parts of the South and West sides have lagged New York.
Experts say it's difficult to pinpoint why New York has achieved so much success at reducing violence. Criminologists have pointed to a diversified economy and gentrification as factors. Some law enforcement officials credit police tactics like the longtime "broken windows" policy that targets quality-of-life crimes such as prostitution and vagrancy in order to prevent more serious violence.
Taking back the streets
Washington Heights was so violent in the 1990s that the New York Police Department added a second precinct, the 33rd, to the neighborhood to address the problems.
A hub of drug activity stretched along 163rd Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. To control the violence, McCarthy, then the 33rd Precinct's commanding officer, posted officers on each end of 163rd Street –– for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for several weeks. Dozens were arrested during the effort, which became known as the "Model Block Program" and marked the beginning of a new strategy.
Floodlights shined over the block at night. Blue barricade horses were set up on each end. Officers checked IDs. If you lived on the block you'd be allowed in. If you didn't, you better have a good reason to be there.
New York City is a less violent metropolis than Chicago, despite its much larger population. The stunning decline in its violence came after the launch of new policing strategies in the 1990s. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
"The idea was to make (drug dealers) understand that the violence is bad for business," McCarthy said in a recent interview. "And as soon as there's violence, we're going to come down on you and shut down your operation."
The impact has been material — and lasting. In 1990, the 34th Precinct had 103 homicides, the third most of NYPD's 75 precincts, police statistics show. In 2014, the 33rd and 34th precincts combined had just three killings.
When William Bratton first became the city's top cop in 1994, the NYPD began a cultural transformation by holding commanders accountable for quelling violence in their precincts.
He also targeted open-air drug markets, a catalyst for hundreds of homicides that occurred each year during the crack wars. During his first stint as commissioner, 8,000 open-air drug markets operated throughout the city, said Bratton, now in his second stint as New York's top cop.
Bratton more than doubled the NYPD's narcotics units — a move that helped put a lid on drug-related violence and crippled the open-air markets.
"You have to really look to find a very visible drug market," Bratton told the Tribune in an interview. "So by taking back the streets ... (that) reduced the amount of violence where they're killing each other over a corner."
For all its successes, the road has been bumpy at times for the NYPD. Its "stop, question and frisk" practices that were widely credited by many for bringing crime down in the 2000s were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge for unfairly targeting African-Americans and Latinos.
The 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner exposed distrust that many in the African-American community held for the police. His death started out as a "broken windows" arrest for selling loose cigarettes.
Still, Bratton continues to champion many of the same strategies he did the first time around.
"We're controlling behavior, criminal behavior, to such an extent we're changing it, so that we have a much smaller population of criminals to deal with," he said.
Guns, gangs and gentrification
In Chicago, McCarthy is trying to replicate the Model Block Program on the West Side, where much of the drug trade takes place in open-air markets that fuel the violence. It's been part of an initiative that has been running in three of the Police Department's 22 districts over the last few years.
The strategy calls for undercover officers to buy as many drugs from as many dealers as possible within a two- to four-week period. Police then swarm the area and arrest all the dealers. From there, uniformed officers saturate those areas to try to keep them free of drug-dealing.
McCarthy admits the strategy hasn't shown the same success as in New York. Last year the West Side's Harrison District, traditionally one of Chicago's most violent, led the city with 51 homicides. Overall, homicides and shootings in the three districts haven't shown any drastic changes since 2011 when McCarthy came to Chicago.
"The West Side, we've had a huge problem getting it done because we're just not getting the support," McCarthy said. "Sometimes it's because of lack of community support, sometimes it's because maybe we don't execute it well. You know, our performance can definitely improve."
Just last June, Chicago police and federal authorities arrested more than 30 people who ran an open-air drug market in the 3700 block of West Grenshaw Street in the North Lawndale community. After that, officers were assigned to the block 24/7 to keep tabs on people coming and going.
"The problem is (that) right up the block, there's still a big problem," the superintendent said.
McCarthy cited one key difference with New York that so far has yet to take root in some Chicago neighborhoods.
"The people who lived there changed their mindset," he said of Washington Heights.
The Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side pastor whose church is in one of the initiative districts, said he's not surprised McCarthy would say he's struggling to get community cooperation because there's nationwide distrust between the police and the African-American and Latino communities.
But Acree also said another reason McCarthy isn't getting the results he wants is because New York's gang problem pales in comparison to Chicago's.
"Chicago is a unique animal," said Acree, who heads Greater St. John Bible Church in the heavily African-American Austin community. "And sometimes when you try to put a circle in a square peg, it's really tough."
Bratton agreed with McCarthy that Chicago has been hurt in its fight against violence by lax gun laws that too often result in probation for offenders.
"You are much more likely to serve jail time here and Los Angeles than you will in Chicago," said Bratton, who also headed the Los Angeles Police Department for seven years.
New York has also been aggressive in going after the illegal supply of guns. In 2006, the city sued more than 20 gun shops from out of state as the top sources of illegal weapons traced to crimes in New York. As part of the legal settlement, a court-appointed monitor oversaw safeguards at the shops, including videotaping sales and training employees to prevent illegal purchases. According to a later study, the crackdown sharply dropped the flow of illegal guns from the shops.
While Chicago's violence is primarily driven by gang strife, gangs in New York have never been as organized, Bratton said. In many respects, gang members in New York are what he called "wannabes" who copy on a much smaller scale more established gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles.
"LA has an estimated 40,000 what they describe as 'documented gang members' in the city and over 100,000 in the county of 10 million people," Bratton said. "We have 8 1/2 million people in New York, I damn sure don't have 100,000 gang members in New York."
Chicago's gangs — estimated at 110,000 strong by Chicago police — have been heavily influenced over the decades by the racially segregated public housing projects. Their destruction allowed gang members to stir up new rivalries in different parts of the city. By contrast, New York has a large number of public housing complexes to this day, but some of the housing is mixed-income and many of its high-rises are not far from more economically stable neighborhoods.
"Both then and now, concentrations of public housing in New York were never as socially isolated as it was in Chicago," said David Kennedy, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
New York's gentrification has spread to historically African-American neighborhoods, including Harlem, another neighborhood in Upper Manhattan that also had massive drops in violence over the last 20 years. Most of Chicago's historically African-American neighborhoods, however, have seen limited economic improvement, and unabated violence.
Robert Gore remembers playing football at age 11 on a dusty, rocky field in a park along Patchen Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a black community in Brooklyn ravaged by the drug trade in the 1980s and 1990s. There was no grass, just metal debris from old car parts, garbage, discarded shoes and empty drug vials.
Today, some of Bed-Stuy's trademark brownstones and row houses are worth as much as $3 million. The dilapidated field where Gore spent part of his youth has been replaced by lush green turf. The people walking through the neighborhood are also different. Much different.
"You just saw a middle-class white guy walk down the street with his daughter," Gore, now an emergency room physician, told the Tribune as he stood outside the old park. "He didn't look like he was coming to buy drugs. He was with his family."
For the first time in recent years, Chicago has experienced a surge in violent killings and shootings, police statistics show, and this summer has seen an escalation of that violence. The city has recorded 325 homicides from Jan. 1 to Sept. 6, according to the most recent numbers available. That's an increase of 20 percent over the same period last year. In addition, there have been 1,535 shooting incidents, an 18 percent increase from the same period last year.
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