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[Kevin Whipple for The Trace]

How We Fix This

Inside the Ambitious Campaign to Push Chicago Homicides Below 400

The private funders and outreach groups behind the “<399” plan are bringing unprecedented coordination to gun violence prevention in the city. But without more public dollars, they say, the effort may fall short.

In a conference room on the Far South Side of Chicago, Jalon Arthur, an employee of a local nonprofit violence reduction program, unfurled a giant city map across a table. He pointed at patches of orange, yellow, purple, and pink stretched across neighborhoods on the South and West sides. 

Each color signified the coverage area of a street outreach organization. Their workers mediate disputes before they snowball into cycles of tit-for-tat shootings; they also steer high-risk individuals into social services designed to keep them away from violence. Until recently, Arthur said, workers from different organizations rarely collaborated, even if they shared common terrain. “Chicago has a long history of working in silos — on every level,” said Arthur, the director of strategic priorities for Creating Real Economic Destiny, or CRED. “That lack of coordination between the groups made the whole strategy fractured.” 

But now, the walls have broken down, with outreach workers banded together in what Arthur and many others have portrayed as part of a monumental shift in Chicago’s burgeoning gun violence prevention landscape. Three years after a spike in homicides focused international attention on the city, a wide-ranging and multi-layered set of initiatives has united around an ambitious goal: Ending a year in Chicago with fewer than 400 homicides, a level not achieved since 1965. Organizers of the effort have branded it “<399.” 

To get there, CRED and other private donors have poured millions of dollars into expanding outreach, community patrols, and neighborhood events. Nonprofits are coordinating with city agencies to pick up litter and replace broken street lights. Case managers and others strive to line individuals up with support and keep them on the right path. 

Meanwhile, at City Hall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently deputized a senior director at CRED to head a newly created Office of Public Safety, which is expected to help orchestrate an array of public and private anti-violence resources. Last month, she unveiled a $1.4 million summer mentoring program for at-risk teens, framing gun violence in the public-health terms that neighborhood organizations have long advocated. 

Lori Lightfoot made curbing crime a key plank of her winning campaign platform. Here, she addresses participants of the an anti-violence march in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in May. [John J. Kim/Getty ]

Veterans of Chicago’s fight against gun violence call the developments unprecedented.  After years of anti-crime strategies tilted toward tougher policing, they’re hopeful that the city may have entered a watershed moment. “All of this is a lot different from what we’ve seen in the past,” said Charlie Ransford, the director of science and policy for Cure Violence, an international street outreach organization with a chapter in Chicago. “I think it’s clear we’ve turned a corner here.” 

But just as Arthur’s map highlighted an evolution, it also underscored how much work remains to be done. Dotted across it were thousands of small squares, each marking the location of a shooting or homicide that occurred over the previous 15 months. Huge swaths of the South, West, and North sides — where the squares had clustered into morbid mosaics — had no outreach coverage at all. “What we basically have here is an unchecked tennis match, violence going back and forth, with nobody to actually go out and interrupt those conflicts,” Arthur said. 

The organizers of the <399 campaign say they can’t hit their goal if the city and state government do not ramp up public spending to bring outreach into neighborhoods that lack it. The clock is ticking. Shootings are down compared to 2018, but so far this year, Chicago has still tallied more than 250 homicides, including at least six over the extended Fourth of July weekend. 

“We’re in a fight right now,” Arthur said. “A fight to go deeper and stronger where we are, a fight to expand, and a fight to make sure that we don’t go backward.” 

 On June 5, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, approved a $40 billion spending plan slated to carry the state into next summer. The budget included more than $19 million for community-based violence prevention and street outreach programs, at least a chunk of which is headed for Chicago. 

But the city’s community organizations say that is not enough. This winter, CRED joined with more than 50 other groups to launch the Violence Ends Starting Today campaign — or inVEST — calling on the city, state, and federal governments to set aside public funding to the tune of $150 million, enough to service 10,000 people annually, they say.

The campaign kicked off during an event at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago, where former mayors from Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other cities spoke to a packed auditorium about strategies they pursued to reduce gun violence during their respective tenures. The panel was moderated by Arne Duncan, a former education secretary in the Obama administration who launched CRED in 2016 alongside Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow and heir of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. (Powell Jobs’s social impact organization, the Emerson Collective, has provided funding to The Trace.)

By playing on the word “invest,” organizers have sought to underline how money paid upfront would preserve the region’s dwindling human capital. Recent population declines have put Chicago on the verge of being overtaken by Houston as the nation’s third-largest city; one reason cited by ex-Chicagoans for their departures has been the risk of getting shot. Neighborhoods with the highest violent crime rates on the South and West sides have been among those recording the sharpest decreases in their black populations. 

Organizers also say that investments in violence prevention would save Chicago vast sums of money. Gunshot incidents cost the city $2.5 billion a year — or $2,500 per household, according to a 2009 estimate by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. That price tag includes direct spending on items such as medical care and the criminal justice system, as well as the indirect toll manifested through lost worker productivity. 

By the end of 2016, Chicago had tallied more than 760 homicides and more than 3,500 shooting incidents, the worst totals in nearly two decades. On December 31, residents and activists marched down Michigan Avenue, holding a cross for each victim. [Scott Olson/Getty]

“Put simply, our city and state can’t afford not to do this,” said Eddie Bocanegra, the senior director of READI Chicago, an anti-violence program. “It’s in their best interest to support these organizations that are providing these direct services and being very thoughtful and strategic in addressing these issues head-on. If they don’t, there’s a lot at stake.” 

As inVEST has made a point of highlighting, Chicago stacks up poorly against other cities when it comes to supporting community-driven violence prevention. In 2018, the city recorded 561 homicides, a sizable drop from its terrible 2016 total but still more than New York and Los Angeles — each of which have larger populations — combined. This year, Chicago budgeted tens of millions of dollars for after-school, summer, and mentoring programs, but the city trails others in funding the more direct intervention of street outreach, which experts say is critical to reducing shootings. In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose not to renew a one-year, $1 million contract for Cure Violence, money that had paid for additional outreach workers on the South and West sides. 

Chicago was also slow in setting up an executive department to coordinate public and private resources citywide. In 2018, Emanuel announced that his administration was moving to establish the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention, but only allotted the office four staff positions with salaries totaling about $348,000 — less than the Police Department’s budget for stationery and office supplies.  

Meanwhile, for at least the last five fiscal years, Los Angeles has steered more than $20 million annually to a violence prevention department within its executive branch. The same year that department was established, in 2007, Los Angeles’s murders dipped below 400 and have stayed there ever since. A 2017 evaluation by California State University researchers found that an outreach program managed by the department had prevented 185 violent gang crimes over a two-year stretch, saving the city an estimated $110 million in crime-related costs. 

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio opened a similar office two years ago, and has since increased its budget to about $36 million. The 15-person team contracts with outreach workers spread across detention facilities, dozens of schools, and more than 20 violence-plagued neighborhoods, said Eric Cumberbatch, the office’s executive director. He said he believes a similar office would help Chicago. “There are a lot of organizations that do very similar work in Chicago, but it’s very uncoordinated and unrecognized by the city government,” Cumberbatch said. “Once those community groups are really hotwired together and linked to city agencies and really lifted up, I think it will have a great impact.” 

The organizers of the <399 campaign are quick to emphasize that 399 homicides in any year is still too many. But Deon Patrick, an outreach team supervisor for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, said setting the goal was eye-opening. “I’d never thought about how we hadn’t had under 400 murders in more than 50 years. That’s ridiculous,” Patrick said. “And just bringing this up, it gives us something that we as a city can strive for.” 

Outreach workers have been a longtime presence in Chicago. They not only deploy to the scene after gunfire erupts to try to head off retaliatory attacks; they are also proactive, seeking out potential perpetrators and victims of violence to steer them toward safer lifestyles. The workers identify at-risk individuals in a variety of ways: Some leverage their relationships on the street and their reputations as former offenders or visit inmates at the Cook County Jail. Others field phone calls from concerned parents who wish to refer their children. The READI program identifies potential participants with the aid of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which crunches shooting and arrest data to pinpoint individuals at an elevated risk of gun violence and sends the results to outreach workers so they can go and make contact. 

Deon Patrick is a supervisor for the Institute for Nonviolence, one of eight outreach groups allied under Communities Partnering 4 Peace. “We target the highest-risk, not just the at-risk,” he said. “When we find resources for these guys, their whole demeanor changes.” [Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace]

Billy Deal, who does outreach for the Institute for Nonviolence in the Austin neighborhood, estimated that he engages with between 50 and 70 people a day. “Where they are, we go. We meet them on their playing field,” Deal said. “I always tell them, ‘If I overcame, you can too.’” 

The bulk of outreach work in Chicago operates thanks to the largesse of philanthropies, corporate sponsors, and other private funders, dozens of which teamed up after the city experienced its spike in shootings in 2016 to direct dollars toward promising programs. 

What is different about outreach in Chicago now compared to just a few years ago, outreach workers say, is that the growth in partnerships has generated a bigger web of services they can offer to those at risk. “Back in the day, I could come and tell you there’s a better way, but then I’d have to stop right there, because there was nothing I could connect you with to show you,” said Ray Andrus, senior crew manager with Centers for New Horizons, which helps operate a prevention program in Englewood. “In today’s day, there are multiple resources that will help you get to where you’re trying to be.”

Resources were an important factor for Glenn Harris, Jr., who walked into an Institute for Nonviolence office last year looking for a job. The institute got Harris into the READI program, which prepares young people for permanent employment while providing them wages, therapy, and other forms of wrap-around support. 

Harris, 32, said that during his time in the program he had twice visited Atlanta to see his kids. He got calls from outreach workers each time. “They would just be like, ‘Hey bro, you good? You know you got a job when you come back,’” Harris said. “It shows that they care.”

Chicago government’s parsimony toward community prevention and intervention initiatives stretches back decades, a history that helps explain why the city is now struggling to catch up with its peers. 

In the 1960s, as the city confronted the bloodshed of that era, community organizers and church leaders joined forces with influential gang members to set up a host of social action initiatives. Their collaboration caused consternation for Mayor Richard J. Daley, who saw gangs’ increasing grassroots power and the liberal allies they were attracting as a threat to his political machine, according to a report from the Justice Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Daley responded by initiating a police crackdown that sent droves of gang members to prison. But the aggressive law enforcement tactics largely backfired. The close quarters of prison only made it easier for gangs to recruit new members and consolidate their hierarchies. The bonds gang members forged behind bars endured as they were released back onto the streets, where discriminatory housing policies and a lack of work opportunities fed them into the underground economy. 

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chicago continued pouring money into police suppression in an unsuccessful bid to reduce gang crime. Halfway across the country, New York City tried a different tack, directing dollars toward intervention and social service programs — curtailing its crime problem significantly. “There’s a lot of people that think harder policing will get us to a place where we all want to be at,” said Sharone Mitchell, director of the Illinois Justice Project. “But to those people I would say that you have decades and decades of that theory being tested, and decades and decades of that theory being proven wrong.” 

In more recent years, Chicago’s anti-violence groups have suffered the effects of financial mismanagement and partisan gridlock at the state level. Former Governor Bruce Rauner froze all non-essential state expenditures after taking office in 2015 as the state faced a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall. The order crippled spending on social services for another two years as Rauner, a Republican, and Democratic lawmakers failed to agree on a spending plan. 

“It was very debilitating for many organizations. Some of them threatened to close — and came very close to it,” said Gillian Darlow, chief executive officer of the Polk Bros. Foundation, which provides funding to hundreds of Chicago nonprofits every year. “It’s really only now that we’re starting to see groups pulling out from the effects of that.” 

One organization hit hard was Cure Violence, which lost millions of dollars in state funding, forcing it to slash staffing and close all but one of its 14 Chicago field offices. 

Cure Violence interrupters on patrol in January 2017. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

At the same time, tensions between police and the community were reaching a boiling point. In April 2016, a task force assembled by Emanuel to explore ways of mending ties issued a scathing report. The document laid out how Chicago police had disproportionately stopped, shot, and used tasers against African-American residents, leading to “profound and lasting impacts on the lives and hopes of individuals and communities.” One remedy the communities needed, the task force reported, was “investments in jobs, education and many other important community anchors.” 

By the end of that year, Chicago had tallied more than 760 homicides and more than 3,500 shooting incidents, the worst totals in nearly two decades. The surge has been blamed on numerous factors, none of which have proven definitive. But many believe that the state’s two-year-long budget stalemate played some role. 

It was during the surge that a small group of Chicago philanthropies began meeting in a downtown conference facility on South Dearborn Street to figure out what might be done, said Darlow, who was involved in those conversations. As other funders joined, the gatherings grew so big that the facility had to open its accordion room dividers to accommodate a larger table that everyone could fit around. “It’s just so much bigger than other collaboration that I’ve seen, and I think that speaks to the urgency of the matter,” Darlow said.  

The group named itself the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, or PSPC. Since its inception, PSPC members have committed some $75 million to outreach programs and other neighborhood organizations, an infusion that helped vastly expand the landscape of violence prevention in Chicago. PSPC helped establish READI Chicago as well as Communities Partnering 4 Peace, more commonly called CP4P, an alliance of neighborhood organizations that do outreach in nine areas on the South and West sides. Both READI and CP4P are now playing leading roles in <399 and inVEST. 

Darlow says the funding coalition hopes that by showcasing promising solutions, the city and state government will begin picking up the costs and expanding the interventions. “Philanthropic resources pale in comparison to the public sector,” Darlow said. “If we’re going to talk about scale, philanthropy just can’t take things to the scale we need them to be.” 

At the same time, government coffers in Illinois remain strained. The state continues to run chronic deficits and struggle with a huge unfunded pension liability. Last month, Moody’s re-affirmed its worst-in-the-nation credit rating. Chicago is facing a similarly tough scenario, with Lightfoot struggling to close a budget shortfall that could top $700 million

“What it’s really going to take to get to 399 is political will,” said Bocanegra of READI, who also chaired a committee that advised Lightfoot on public safety issues during her transition into office. “I don’t know how else we’re going to be able to do this.” 

One funder in the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities is CRED, which simultaneously occupies a role at the top of <399. CRED’s Arne Duncan is accustomed to the task of forging unlikely consensuses. Before joining the Obama administration, he spent seven and a half years as CEO of Chicago’s public schools, where he developed a reputation as a compromiser. He maintained warm relations with the city’s teachers’ union even while advocating changes they distrusted. In 2008, when two nationwide groups issued manifestos laying out divergent visions on education reform, Duncan was the only big-city district chief to sign both of them. His knack for bridging divides was seen as one reason then-President-elect Barack Obama tapped Duncan as education secretary in late 2008. 

In an interview in this 38th-floor office in downtown Chicago, Duncan, now 54, said he still feels guilty for not using his power as a government executive to better protect the physical and mental welfare of the students he oversaw. “On my watch, an average of one student was killed every two weeks due to gun violence — on their blocks, in their homes, on the CTA bus going home from school,” Duncan said. “That’s a staggering rate of loss.” When Duncan left to serve in the Obama cabinet, he thought the violence could not possibly grow worse. 

It did. Duncan moved back to his native city just weeks before the start of 2016 and its historic spike in shootings. “This was the crisis facing the city, so for me to come back and not work on this or somehow avoid it, it didn’t feel right,” Duncan recalled. “For me, this was very much unfinished business.” He launched CRED to provide ex-offenders and other high-risk young people with transitional jobs while also giving them intensive life coaching, trauma counseling, and other support services. Duncan’s role with his new organization frequently put him in front of government officials and community leaders. And as he had more and more conversations, he came to think a key ingredient was missing from the city’s anti-violence strategy. 

“One of the biggest things that troubled me was the absence of goals,” Duncan said. “There were none being talked about in the press, none in the public discussion. Politicians, police, CEOs weren’t talking about it. I kept looking, and I couldn’t find it. So I was like, ‘Forget it. We’re going to set the goals.’” 

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joins hundreds of Chicago students marching for peace during an annual demonstration against violence in June 2017. [Scott Olson/Getty]

Out of that frustration, <399 was born. The effort rests on what Jalon Arthur, CRED’s strategic priorities director, called five “pillars.” The first is the work organizations are doing to coordinate and expand the efforts of outreach workers around the city. Organizations like CP4P have also been central to that endeavor, by better equipping outreach workers for the difficult and often dangerous responsibilities they take on. In 2018, CP4P opened the Metropolitan Peace Academy to provide standardized training to outreach workers. Vaughn Bryant, executive director of Metropolitan Family Services, which oversees the CP4P partnership, said 70 workers had already completed the academy’s 144-hour, 18-week curriculum, with another 25 slated to start in the fall. He expects all of the remaining outreach workers to have graduated by December 2021. 

A further pillar is meant to open lines of communication between community groups on the front lines and the municipal officials that can provide critical resources or assistance. Twice a month on the South and West sides, nonprofits meet face-to-face with city agencies to identify crime hotspots and areas where simple remedies like streetlight repair or clean-ups can help stop violence from taking root. Finally, CRED and other organizations have also been working with approximately 250 “peace ambassadors” deployed to patrol troubled blocks and temper conflicts during the summer months, when violence tends to soar. The ambassadors were trained in conflict mediation and receive a stipend of $100 a day.  

Duncan said he is hopeful that these initiatives will drive Chicago homicides below the sub-400 benchmark he’s set. But he has no illusions as to the daunting challenges that lie ahead. About a week before sitting down with The Trace, Duncan was speaking to a room of middle-school students on the West Side. Toward the end of their conversation, he told the students he was sorry about the violence on their blocks. One girl jerked upright. Duncan asked her if everything was OK. “She said, ‘I can’t play outside, so I watch YouTube videos of kids playing outside,’” Duncan recalled, pausing to compose himself. His voice shaking, he added: “That just broke me.” 

“We’ve raised this entire generation of kids on gun violence,” he said. “And it’s not their fault. It’s our fault.” 

The February launch of the inVEST campaign was strategically timed to capitalize on the infusion of new blood in Springfield and City Hall. Governor Pritzker had been sworn in the prior month, and the contest to replace Mayor Emanuel in Chicago was kicking into high gear. 

Lightfoot had made curbing crime a key plank of her winning campaign platform. During her inaugural address in May, she reiterated her vow to create an Office of Public Safety, labeling gun violence “the biggest challenge” faced by the city. Last month, Lightfoot announced that she had selected Susan Lee, the senior director of CRED’s Safe Chicago Network, to lead the new office. Lee has vowed to pivot the city away from a “law-enforcement-driven solution” to gun violence and ensure investments flow to social service supports, one of inVEST’s key demands. 

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Members of the inVEST partnership were also buoyed in recent weeks by Pritzker’s signing of a state bill legalizing recreational marijuana beginning next year. The legislation earmarks a sizable share of the state’s profits to anti-violence and other community programs. It may raise as much as $40 million for these programs in 2020 and more than double that in subsequent years. “The bill would help fund — significantly fund — the work that we’re doing to increase outreach,” said Tara Dabney, the development and communications director for the Institute for Nonviolence, which does outreach for READI. “We currently have a staff of 68. That sounds like a large number, and we’re making a dent, but the needs are so much greater.”

READI staff and participants had gone to Springfield to lobby for the legislation, taking part in a rally on the steps of the Capitol along with hundreds of other advocates, some wearing orange T-shirts emblazoned with the inVEST logo. “Give us a chance,” said Marquis Elliott, a 23-year-old READI participant, who took part in the rally. “This program is actually doing something … It changed my life.”  

Despite the obstacles, many longtime observers of Chicago’s faltering gun violence strategies are cautiously optimistic that the city might be coalescing around a more effective approach. “I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, so I’m used to being disappointed,” said Andy Papachristos, a sociology professor at Northwestern University who has done extensive research on the city’s gun violence. “But I’ve also lived long enough to see every Chicago sports franchise win a championship. So, that is to say, I’m more hopeful  than I have been a long time. 

“We’re just at a place where everyone needs to realize what kind of skin they have in the game,” he added, “so we can figure out what more we can do.”