The killing of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee by street gang members in Chicago last month because the boy’s father had alleged gang ties brought national attention to the alarming level of violence in America's third-largest city had become. But even as U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced an investigation into Chicago's police department Monday that could explore how police brutality in the city has contributed to increased street violence, the city's underfunding of social programs that could curb gang wars has largely been ignored, community activists said.
Gang prevention groups in other major U.S. cities, like Los Angeles, have had success at steering youths away from a destructive path and reducing gang violence, but in Chicago, gang prevention efforts haven't received wide support. While Los Angeles has incorporated millions from its budget for gang violence reduction, Chicago and Illinois lawmakers have cut the modest funding once earmarked for the city's major gang violence reduction group, activists said.
From the 1980s through the 1990s, Los Angeles was synonymous with street gang violence. Almost 1,000 people a year were killed in L.A. in that period, and entire neighborhoods were run by gangs.
“Before, [the policy] was incarcerate and suppress,” said Alison Camacho, media relations manager for Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program in Los Angeles. “The solution was with reentry; when people leave jail, they need opportunities.”
To combat Los Angeles’ gang problem, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa created in 2007 the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, commonly known as GRYD, which works to strengthen communities where gang activity has been high.
The GRYD program trains gang interventionists and provides funding for parks and activities in communities typically at the center of gang activity, said Kaile Shilling, executive director of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, a group that works with various organizations to help end the cycle of gang violence. The GRYD program also helps young people in the most affected areas get jobs by allowing them to work at events sponsored by the program, which include concerts and classes.
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“It provides positive alternatives so that the gang is not the most appealing thing for [kids] to do,” Shilling said. “It provides safe places for kids to go.”
The city continues to support its measures to reduce gang violence. For Los Angeles’ 2015-2016 budget, the city appropriated more than $26 million for GRYD programming, according to city records.
Los Angeles' investment in violence prevention has coincided with dramatic drops in gang violence. In the past eight years, homicides related to gang violence in Los Angeles have dropped by more than 65 percent, the Huffington Post reported. Since 2005, gang-related crimes have dropped by about 55 percent.
Meanwhile, Chicago's violence in recent years has escalated Some 294 murders were recorded in Chicago in 2015 by August, up from 244 in 2014, the New York Times reported. From 2009 to 2012, Chicago gang activity grew by 25 percent, according to ABC News. In 2011, 61 percent of all homicides in Chicago were gang-related.
Attorney General Lynch announced Monday a Department of Justice investigation into whether the Chicago Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the civil rights of residents, after video recently surfaced of the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year. She said there are consequences when people feel "ignored, let down or mistreated" by law enforcement.
Chicago activists working to stop street shootings have often had a difficult relationship with police and city leaders. One of the groups that was created to help stop gang violence was Operation CeaseFire, which is run by the national initiative Cure Violence, founded in 1995 by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who viewed violence as a public health epidemic. The group tries to identify what root cause drove someone to engage in violent behavior, then connects them with the right social service providers to help change their behavior, said Kathy Buettner, communications director for Cure Violence, an organization operated out of University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health that oversees the CeaseFire program.
“We try to create a new norm,” Buettner said.
CeaseFire’s efforts to curb gang violence have worked, according to the group’s own numbers. From 2005 to 2015, funding to the group was cut three times, and after each cut, killings in Chicago rose by about 15 percent. A study from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, also found that CeaseFire’s efforts helped reduce crime, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
But financing for the program has been hard to come by. The city of Chicago had a $1 million contract with the CeaseFire program that lasted one year, but after the contract was up in 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose not to renew it, the Chicago Tribune reported. This came after the Chicago Police Department criticized the group, saying it wasn’t working closely enough with law enforcement or sharing information with the police.
Amid a budget crisis, the state of Illinois stopped its funding for the program in March, which eventually led to the closure of many of the CeaseFire locations. The state had planned to give the program about $4.7 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Crain’s Chicago Business newspaper reported. The plan was dropped after Gov. Bruce Rauner froze the funding because the state passed a budget that spent much more than the state was taking in.
Before the budget cuts, Buettner said, there were 18 CeaseFire programs throughout Chicago. Only five programs are now active in the city, mostly from nongovernmental organization donations.
“The problem with Chicago is there isn’t the funding right now for continued programming in high-risk neighborhoods to reduce violence,” Buettner said.
Even when CeaseFire did have all of its funding, it had only enough money to operate in about 25 percent of the city’s high-risk communities. In contrast, Los Angeles has gang reduction programming in much of the city, Buettner said.
When Los Angeles originally started the GRYD program, it identified the 12 worst neighborhoods in the city, to operate in, said Paul Carrillo, executive director of Southern California Crossroads, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged youth to avoid getting involved in gangs. That number has increased to about 28 to 30 areas of Los Angeles identified for GRYD programs to operate in.
“If we had the same kind of consistency of funding and scope in Chicago, I think you would see a dramatic reduction” in gang violence, Buettner said.