New Chicago police Superintendent David Brown has been in his post for just two months, but his walk to a lectern at police headquarters had a familiar feel Monday.
Another weekend of stunning bloodshed in Chicago had given way to another round of police and city leaders grasping for explanations.
“On the heels of Father’s Day, I come to you again with obviously a high level of frustration and disappointment,” Brown said at a press briefing.
This time, on the first official summer weekend of the year, it was 106 people shot, 14 fatally — including a 3-year-old boy.
The tally marked the most people shot in one weekend here since at least 2012, and the violence took a particular toll on children. Twelve of those shot were younger than 18 years old. Five of them died, including two walking into their backyard after going to get candy at a corner shop.
Six shootings involved three or more victims. One drive-by shooting early Monday in the East Garfield Park neighborhood injured five, including a 16-year-old girl who was left in critical condition.
The Austin District, where 3-year-old Mekhi James was fatally shot Saturday afternoon, had the most shooting victims: 18.
And while shootings were seen across the city, those who work at the front lines of reducing violence also were left to consider what’s happening on blocks that have borne the brunt of the problem for decades. Chicago is an agitated place, they said, dealing with the stress of a global pandemic, recent civil unrest and the fallout from decades of neglect and abandonment in some neighborhoods.
“I think the main thing to understand is that tensions are high,” said David Stovall, a professor of African American studies and criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You have the COVID situation, which is making it harder to get work. The same communities have been disenfranchised for an elongated period of time. They haven’t had access to quality education or quality health care. … In these situations, these stressors are often enacted on the people who are in proximity to you.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot often talks about long-term disenfranchisement as an underlying factor in the violence problem. But on Monday, Brown was left to handle the more immediate issues.
He appeared somber. Asked about the contributing factors to the escalation of violence, Brown replied, “Gangs, guns and drugs.”
As he took the helm earlier this year, Brown publicly stated he could envision a Chicago with fewer than 300 murders a year, a figure the city is already quickly approaching. For her part, Lightfoot has continued to support Brown, including on Monday, when she addressed his stated goal.
“I think what the superintendent said when he had this ambitious goal of 300, he called it a moon shot,” Lightfoot said. “And the idea was, not so much the number, but making sure that we rallied all the resources, both within the Police Department, but also with our various partners, to really focus on what each of us could to do more around public safety.”
But Brown seemed to blame at least some of those partners for this weekend’s mayhem.
Not enough violent offenders are locked up, and those who are jailed don’t stay there long enough, Brown said at his briefing. He also criticized the tracking of suspects who are arrested and placed on electronic monitoring by Cook County as they await trial.
“There are too many violent offenders not in jail, or on electronic monitoring, which no one is really monitoring,” Brown said. “We need violent felons to stay in jail longer and we need improvements to the home monitoring system.”
When asked how he knew this was to blame, Brown said only that it was his years in law enforcement. He also refused to be specific about what was not working about the electronic-monitoring system.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has long complained that system is stretched too thin.
Asked about Brown’s comments Monday, Dart spokeswoman Allison Peters noted it is judges who determine who is placed on monitoring. And the number of people on ankle bracelets has grown by about 1,000 people since the coronavirus pandemic began, further stressing the system, she said in a statement.
“This increase took place without any additional staff or funding allocated to (monitoring),” she wrote. “In the past, we have routinely made requests for additional funding for positions in EM, but budget restrictions did not allow for the increase.”
Whether that explanation from Brown gains traction remains to be seen, but some police sources who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity blamed other factors. Some blamed a lack of a cohesive crime-fighting plan as well as the warm weather that drew a lot of people outdoors, creating an opportunity for gang shooters to settle scores with rivals.
Anti-violence outreach teams reached by the Tribune agreed that the first warm, celebratory weekend brought a lot of people outside. The weekend opened with the Juneteenth holiday and ended with Father’s Day.
That recipe put more innocent people in harm’s way, they said. And having neighborhoods newly full perhaps sometimes brought those with disputes in contact with each other.
“We’re working with guys that (have) been into it all year round that probably didn’t see each other,” said Bennie Clark, a program manager for Target Area Development, a South Side anti-violence group that mediates street conflicts. “Now they get a chance to see each other. It just made (it) an opportunity to carry out these acts.”
Clark said he was sad to see so many people across the city get hurt, and that it reflects the difficultly of street outreach workers to stay ahead of so many conflicts to prevent shootings and retaliatory violence.
“We’re up against a lot,” Clark said. “We can tackle one thing, and then it’d be a whole other situation going on.
Some noted that the shootings this time happened against the backdrop of not only COVID-19 but also the sustained protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
At the pandemic’s start, deaths from the virus were happening in the same neighborhoods historically suffering from gun violence. Then, in late May and early June, Chicago, like many cities, experienced protests over Floyd’s death, some of which gave way to looting.
Brown, at the news conference, acknowledged that his officers have worked multiple 12-hour days and had much time off canceled in the last 20 days since the civil unrest that began during the last weekend of May.
“They’re human and they’re tired,” he said. “But they are very professional and I am so proud of the work that they’re putting in given the circumstances that they’re under.”
But whatever the immediate reasons for this weekend’s bloodshed were, UIC’s Stovall and others remarked that the real driver of violence is that so many neighborhoods have been left without access to adequate jobs, education or health care, and that is not a new situation.
Stovall said solutions such as having outreach teams of the kind Brown has sometimes mentioned could help, reaching people swept up in the violence to try and reduce tensions. But the city needs to consider wider, deeper solutions, including access to meaningful jobs, he said.
Asiaha Butler, a longtime community activist in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, said she also felt the weekend’s tension.
But on Monday, between her usual community meetings, Butler said the answers to ending Chicago’s violence are found in the long, hard work of demanding better conditions.
“Many of us hear these stories, and believe me, we are not happy to hear about the 3-year-old, but we just know that the work has to keep going,” Butler said.
“And it’s not a quick fix,” she said. “We can’t protest our way out of this. We really have to take some deep assessments. I will continue to go back to the economic stability of neighborhoods and the generational trauma that takes deeper work to address.”
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