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Criminal Justice

Read the Open Letter Published By An ‘Unshackled’ Former U.S. Attorney on Chicago’s Gun Violence Problem

“My hope and goal is to just speak truth,” wrote Zachary Fardon, who resigned this week as the city’s top prosecutor.

Chicago’s top federal prosecutor, Zachary Fardon, resigned on Monday — but not before releasing a spirited open letter urging the city to change its approach to fighting crime. Last year was Chicago’s deadliest in two decades: About 2,700 people were shot, 764 fatally.

In the five-page letter released to reporters, Fardon, who was one of 46 United States attorneys asked last week to step down by the Trump administration, expresses deep frustration with the entrenched culture of gun violence in his city. He outlines a list of actions  he’d like to see implemented — from Chicago agreeing to reform its police department, to consolidating the efforts of federal law enforcement in the city.

“Today I stand unshackled by the constraints of being the U.S. Attorney” he writes. “My hope and goal is just to speak the truth.”

If you’d like to read the entire letter, click here. Otherwise, scroll on for some choice excerpts:

Fardon begins with a short history lesson, declaring that Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods have long been neglected, leaving residents, particularly children, to turn to crime:

The reasons for that history run in neglect are rooted in ugly truths about power, politics, race and racism that are a tragic part of our local and national history and heritage. And as a consequence of those ugly truths, and the neglect they brought, these neighborhoods stand wrought with poverty and inadequate schools, businesses, jobs and infrastructure. For many growing up in these neighborhoods, there is a sense of hopelessness, a belief cemented early in life that they’re not good enough for higher education and that they’ll never get good jobs. Gangs and gun are ubiquitous, and gangs fill the void created by that hopelessness; they teach kids crime and violence, and give kids protection, money, and a sense of belonging. That’s the long term reality, and long term challenge.

He says the city’s recent surge in shootings can be directly attributed to four key events: the release of a video showing police officers gunning down Laquan McDonald, which provoked a national uproar; a subsequent investigation by the Department of Justice into law enforcement practices, which damaged police morale; the firing of the Chicago police superintendent; and the implementation of a settlement reached with the American Civil Liberties Union, which restricted the use of stop-and-frisk tactics by police.

Those things exploded a powder keg that didn’t change fundamentally the landscape of gun violence or law enforcement, but they poured gasoline on the tragic aspects of those realities and further polarized our officers and our community.

Fardon says the city and the Department of Justice should negotiate a court-enforced agreement, known as a consent decree, to reform the Chicago Police Department. This action was recommended in a DOJ report released in the last days of the Obama administration.

The DOJ findings report is a roadmap to addressing the systemic deficiencies in training, supervision and accountability. And I’m not picking on this Mayor or City Administration, who’ve done many good things, when I say the following: if you leave correcting those deficiencies to the vagaries of city politics, then you likely lose the long term fight. This city’s history is replete with examples of saying the right thing, in some cases starting the right thing, but then losing focus, particularly if and as the media and public attention pivot toward whatever is the latest crisis.

He argues that the city needs to fund more prosecutors in his former office and consolidate the efforts of federal law enforcement agencies — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency, to name a few.

This US Attorney’s Office should have 15-20 more AUSAs immediately assigned to it, full time and permanent. It’s a travesty that the office remains understaffed since sequestration. In the 2000s, the office had 172 federal lawyers. In 2012, sequestration hit and over the next two years we bled down to 127 lawyers. Under the current budget the office can afford about 158 lawyers. That is still a dozen down from where it was in the 2000s. If you want more federal gang and gun prosecutions, we need more full-time, permanent federal prosecutors in Chicago. That’s simple math.

Beyond the US Attorney’s Office, there are three key federal investigative partners relevant to this discussion: FBI, DEA and ATF. Each is noble, talented and passionate about fighting crime. But here’s a hard truth: federal law enforcement can yield an improved impact on gun violence in this city by either folding those key federal agencies together into one agency, or as an alternative, assigning all their agents working on violent crime to one special task force with one mission and one leadership chain.

Fardon seems to endorse a version of “hot spot” policing:

We need to flood [high-crime neighborhoods] with local and federal law enforcement officers. Not just to arrest the bad guys but also to be standing on that corner where shots otherwise might get fired, to be breaking up those corner loiterers, and to be meeting and learning and knowing the kids, the people, and the truth of who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and who isn’t yet formed and can be swayed.

But he does not endorse, he says, deploying the National Guard to violent Chicago neighborhoods.

Some people recently have said bring in the National Guard. If you care only about the short view, maybe that’s some attractiveness to that notion. But if you care about the long view — if you don’t want to be talking about “Chiraq” and “two Chicagos” ten and twenty years from now, then it’s an ill-conceived notion. What would a National Guard presence say to folks in those neighborhoods? This is war, and you are the enemy. The Chicago of bike paths and glistening lakefront, and economic opportunity — that’s not your Chicago, it’s ours and we will protect it.

Fardon also says more needs to be done to stem the flow of violence through social media, through which he said it “moves like a virus.”

Our current epidemic is, as I said, viral. And post Laquan McDonald, there has been a shift, in a bad way, in cultural norms among gang members, to where now there is an expectation of gun play at the beginning of any dispute. A gang member taunts another, and instead of escalating taunts, there are shots fired right away, followed by retaliation shots within hours or days, followed by return retaliation shots, and so forth, with the pathway of violence dotted by social media posts.

Biological viruses are transmitted through body fluid or air. The virus of gun play moves through social media. We can stop or stem that. Don’t send in the National Guard, send in the tech geeks. If a gang member makes CPD’s Strategic Subject List, find a way to curb or realtime monitor that gang member’s social media accounts. If kids have convictions or overt gang affiliations, find a way to curb their social media. I recognize that First Amendment issues come into play, but let’s test those limits. Lives are at stake. Enlist parents, teachers and clergy. And work with social media service providers for options to limit access and to create safeguards against social media as the conduit for the gun virus.

He notes that young people are best kept away from violence before they affiliate with a gang. He said the city needs to give them “brick and mortar” community centers where they can go, focus their energy positively, find role models and avoid gang life.

There is plenty of money and good will in this town. And there are millions of federal dollars spent across this town every year. So let’s find that money and put it to use by creating youth centers, brick and mortar, funding social workers and experts, and intervening to save the lives of kids and young adults.

Fardon says the city should fix its monetary bail bond system, offering no bail in state court for repeat gun offenders.

There is still, by state law, a monetary bond system. That system keeps non-violent poor defendants in jail awaiting trial, and allows violent gang members to get out because they can post money bonds. That’s nuts. There are movements and efforts afoot to address this dilemma. And there’s a model to fix it: our federal bond regime. But this needs to be completely overhauled, and right now. There should be no bail in state court for repeat gun offenders. There should be no bail in state court for those charged with acts of violence who have prior gun and violence convictions. Lives are being lost, every month, because of that bail system. It’s fixable, now.

And, he says, it is critical to avoid an us-versus-them mentality.

This is not war. Wars are fought between enemies. There is only one enemy here, and it is us, all of us in Chicago. Every single one of us. We are the problem, and we are the solution. If we resort to wrongheaded measures, we might set ourselves back years, even decades in the long term fight.

[Photo: U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon speaks during a news conference in January 2017. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)]