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Lori Lightfoot made curbing crime a key plank of her winning campaign platform for Chicago mayor. [Photo: Joshua Lott]

FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence in Chicago

Will Lori Lightfoot Be the Mayor to Finally Solve Chicago’s Gun Violence Problem?

Advocates believe the city is primed for a more effective approach to shootings. Now, they are waiting to see whether the new administration will deliver.

This story was published in partnership with WTTW, Chicago's PBS station.

As hip-hop music thumped in George’s Barber Shop on the South Side of Chicago last month, a lively debate broke out over whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot might be the politician to finally solve Chicago’s gun violence crisis. 

“I think she may be able to do some good for us,” said Derrick Purnell Sr., a 48-year-old electrician, as he sat in a chair waiting for a haircut. “But I haven’t seen anything yet. You got to do more than just talk.” 

George Eskridge, Jr., 49, who runs the shop with his father, was more cynical. Dozens of his customers had fallen victim to shootings, and he has grown wary of politicians raising his hopes and then failing to deliver.

“They’re not going to do anything,” he said. “We’re drowning, and instead of throwing us a life jacket, they want to throw us away.”

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FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence in Chicago

The Trace and WTTW explore the perspectives of people whose lives have been affected by gun violence in Chicago.

Lightfoot entered office in May after rallying voters around her pledge to combat gun violence with a fusillade of resources for the South and West Sides, where bullet holes can outnumber potholes and guns can be easier to find than a job. 

Six months into her first term, Lightfoot has taken steps toward fulfilling her progressive vision. She has carved out a new public safety office to elevate public health approaches to curbing violence, and stacked her administration with experts renowned for their work on community-based violence prevention programs and police reform, earning plaudits from anti-violence activists. 

But the mayor has also drawn rebukes. A former federal prosecutor, Lightfoot’s decision to flood neighborhoods with police officers during the often violent Fourth of July weekend, coupled with her support of a crackdown on repeat gun offenders, was interpreted as a retreat to the “tough-on-crime” policies pursued by her predecessors. More recently, Lightfoot released a 2020 budget blueprint that was criticized as not going far enough in addressing a shooting epidemic that she has repeatedly labeled her top priority. While Lightfoot retains support from many leading figures in Chicago’s burgeoning violence prevention movement, some advocates have begun to express frustration over indications that the mayor is backpedaling on her campaign rhetoric.

The mixed sentiment underscores the tough choices facing Lightfoot as her administration moves to implement a sweeping anti-violence strategy that strikes a balance between smarter policing and community-based programs. It’s a huge undertaking, particularly as the city grapples with a historic budget shortfall, union demands, and a host of other hurdles. Now, many of those who put stock in Lightfoot’s candidacy are waiting with cautious optimism to see whether she can resolve challenges that have bedeviled Chicago for decades. 

“It was clear to me that she wholeheartedly believed in all of the things that she advocated on the campaign trail, but campaigning and governing are two different things,” said Marshall Hatch Jr., who heads the MAAFA Redemption Project, a faith-based violence prevention program in West Garfield Park. “What we’re witnessing is a public servant who’s being pulled in hundreds of different directions by hundreds of different vested interest groups with their own stake and power.”

George Eskridge Jr., hands a set of keys to his father, George Eskridge Sr., in George’s Barber Shop in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Reform advocates are counting on Lightfoot’s administration to build on the infrastructure of violence prevention programs assembled by private funders in recent years. In 2016, as Chicago’s violence climbed at a pace not seen in nearly two decades, philanthropies and corporations began a concerted effort to pour millions of dollars into nonprofit community groups. The funding gave rise to an ecosystem of anti-violence programs united around an ambitious goal: Ending a year with fewer than 400 homicides, a feat not achieved since 1965. 

But these groups say that the private dollars are not enough, and while they are expecting a funding boost from the legalization of recreational marijuana set to take effect across Illinois next year, the city will also need to cover a greater share of the tab. 

To earn their trust, advocates say Lightfoot will need to eschew the practices of earlier administrations that left communities across the South and West Sides neglected, spawning the tale-of-two-cities narrative that has become shorthand for Chicago’s stubborn economic divide. In October, Lightfoot announced $250 million in city funds for development projects in those areas over the next three years.

Activists continue to hope that Lightfoot will be able to overhaul the Chicago Police Department, which experts say is critical to reducing shootings. Lightfoot has already shown a willingness to clash with the powerful Fraternal Order of Police, when she sought to curtail police overtime spending, despite objections from the union. But she also refused to join advocates in denouncing the police department after it created an online dashboard to publicly broadcast the names of felony gun offenders and their bond statuses, a move that many saw as an attempt at pressuring the court system to scale back reforms intended to prevent defendants from languishing in jail.

Still, if Lightfoot sticks to most of her gun violence prevention plans, it will herald a transformative new direction for a city criticized as being slow to adopt policies that have succeeded in other major metropolitan areas. 

Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, dashed hopes for significant police reforms after the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a police officer sparked widespread protests and drew fresh attention to the Chicago Police Department’s history of racism and abuse. Emmanuel’s record on community-based violence prevention was mixed. In 2012, his administration awarded a $1 million grant to Cure Violence to expand street outreach on the South and West Sides, but then pulled the funding a year later after police complained that the group wasn’t working closely enough with law enforcement. Just before leaving office, Emanuel set up a new violence prevention department, but it was decried as small and underfunded.

Asked to characterize how previous administrations dealt with the violence problem, Cedric Frison, an outreach worker and counselor, replied: “They didn’t deal with it. They were just putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds.” 

Lightfoot’s public safety goals will force her administration to navigate Chicago’s no-holds-barred political arena and unite stakeholders around a shared long-term plan. 

“I understand politics, and I understand you’ve got to deliver a lot of things, but unless we have a long-term strategy, we’re not going to be building the infrastructure and capacity to service people,” said Eddie Bocanegra, the senior director of READI Chicago, one of the largest anti-violence programs in the city. “We’re going to be chasing our tail.”

READI relies on shooting and arrest data to identify men who are at the highest risk of being involved in violence and then dispatches outreach workers to make contact. The two-year program provides the men with jobs and therapy, as well as assistance finding housing and other types of support. The program has worked with hundreds of men since launching in 2017 with funding from a coalition of private donors.

Eddie Bocanegra leads one of the largest anti-violence programs in the city. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Supporting a high-risk population means working with people from some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city, where gunplay tends to be common. Just this year, at least 10 of READI’s participants have died in outbreaks of street violence. As Bocanegra rides the “L” train to his office every Monday morning, he pores over news coverage of the weekend’s death toll, and wonders whether the killings could have been averted if the factors that drove young men to pick up guns had been addressed pre-emptively. 

“What if they had been in my program? We would have been able to intervene. We would have been able to help them process through what they’re grappling with,” said Bocanegra, who also advised the Lightfoot administration on public safety issues during the mayor’s transition into office. “We need the city to invest in innovation, to try things that are different and research-based, particularly with this population,” Bocanegra said.

Though roadblocks have emerged, many political observers have stopped short of rendering a verdict on Lightfoot’s performance so far, acknowledging that significant breakthroughs were likely years away. 

“She’s got to clean up an intergenerational mess. Of course, that’s going to be difficult to do in a year or two. She’s going to need time,” said Lance Williams, a professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University who has written extensively about Chicago’s violence. “But she seems to be taking all the right steps.” 

Some disagree. Lightfoot drew fierce criticism for attributing recent violence to changes to the Cook County bond system that allowed the release of more gun offenders and other defendants deemed not to have been a danger to the community. Critics said Lightfoot’s comments were at odds with her campaign rhetoric, and they accused her of trying to score political points even after data had refuted the theory.

“That’s when we knew she really wasn’t changing. She really wasn’t trying to bring any new ideas. She was going to be doing the same stuff that every politician in the past had done,” said DeAngelo Bester, executive director of the Workers Center for Racial Justice, an advocacy group. 

The opprobrium compounded in October after Lightfoot unveiled a draft 2020 spending package that included $11.5 million for community-based violence prevention — a fraction of the $50 million that advocates had requested. The mayor’s announcement came after her administration had spent months figuring out how to close an $838 million budget shortfall, driven by higher-than-expected pension payments and expensive borrowing tactics under her predecessors.

City officials pointed out that $11.5 million was more than previous administrations had ever earmarked, and seven times the amount included in the 2019 budget. But prominent violence prevention figures lined up with criticism, with some voicing doubts about Lightfoot’s resolve and noting that the proposed allotment was dwarfed by what other cities spent on similar programs. 

“She still has a chance to redeem herself, but at this moment I think she failed to show that she is really committed to reducing violence for black and brown people,” said Ciera Walker-Chamberlain, a minister who runs the anti-violence group Live Free Chicago. “She has to put her words into actions. If she continues like this, she will lose support.” 

A chunk of that $11.5 million — $900,000 — would go to a new pilot program providing cognitive behavioral therapy and other services to youth and young adults. Individuals from violence-afflicted neighborhoods in Chicago can exhibit symptoms similar to civilians living in war zones. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been embraced by READI and other violence prevention programs, is designed to help people process their trauma and respond to stressful situations without using a gun. 

But Williams, the professor from Northeastern Illinois University, said the therapy can only go so far if individuals are forced to return to the same stressful situations that caused the problems in the first place. “It’s almost like you’re spinning your wheels: They get therapy during the day and are exposed to trauma on the weekends and then they come back on Monday, and you have to start over,” Williams said. “That’s why you have to improve the actual communities so they’re not living in these traumatic spaces.”

Marshall Hatch Jr., leads the MAAFA Redemption Project, a faith-based violence prevention program in West Garfield Park. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Thirty years ago, Chicago’s homicide rate was on par with New York’s and Los Angeles’s. Then came what has been dubbed the Great American Crime Decline, when violence levels began plummeting around the country. By the mid-2000s, Chicago’s murder rate — the total number of killings compared to the population — had fallen by more than half, from about 33 murders per 100,000 residents in 1992 to 16 murders in 2004.

But the drops in New York and Los Angeles over that period were even steeper, and those cities continued recording declines through the subsequent decade, while Chicago’s murder rate held relatively steady: Last year, the city recorded 577 murders, or more than 20 killings per 100,000 residents. That’s three times greater than the rate in Los Angeles, and nearly six times the rate in New York. 

The violence has inspired an exodus of black residents, putting Chicago on the verge of being overtaken by Houston as the nation’s third-largest city. “African-Americans are leaving in droves. It’s the Reverse Great Migration, and the No. 1 reason is violence and economic opportunity,” said Hatch of the MAAFA Redemption Project. “Addressing gun violence has to be talked about as investing in whole neighborhoods, and so it’s not just about gun violence prevention, it’s also about economic development, and ownership, and empowerment.” 

Chicago’s shootings are concentrated in small pockets on the South and West Sides. But even city residents who are never directly exposed to violence still share in its burden: One recent analysis estimated that shootings cost Chicago’s taxpayers $3.5 billion in 2018, a sum that factored in the price of health care for victims as well as money spent on policing, prosecuting, and incarcerating perpetrators. 

Purnell, the electrician from George’s Barber Shop, was pushed into the social safety net several years ago after a group of assailants pistol-whipped him outside of a South Side convenience store and stole his wallet, which contained $183. The blow to his head caused chronic short-term memory loss that forced him to quit his job driving garbage trucks for the city. His memory was so bad that he had to mark the wall of his shower to remember whether he had washed underneath his arms and to leave notes to remind himself of important appointments. 

“I’ve forgotten weddings with the family, funerals,” Purnell lamented. “Those guys changed my life over $183. They made me a statistic.” 

Before moving away from Englewood about a year and a half ago, Purnell said errant rounds had punched holes in his car and burst through the wall of his living room while he was watching TV. His youngest son was so scared of being shot in his sleep that he moved his mattress into a hallway. 

The Chicago Police Department has tried to get a handle on shootings by rolling out district-level command hubs where officers and analysts can pore over crime data and predict where shootings might happen next. One of the first of these hubs, known as Strategic Decision Support Centers, went live more than two years ago in Englewood, long one of Chicago’s most bullet-riddled communities. Research by the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that the center helped cause a precipitous drop in violence in the neighborhood. 

More recently, the Chicago Police Department has pursued reforms within the Bureau of Detectives to improve its ability to solve shootings. An analysis by The Trace and WTTW found that in 2018, detectives made an arrest in only about one out of every four gun homicides and one out of every 17 nonfatal shootings. Experts say that such a low arrest rate drives people to pick up arms for their own protection and fuels cycles of retaliatory street justice. 

“It really seems like it’s going to be impossible for Chicago to get their hands around this problem if they’re arresting only a small fraction of the shooters and there’s really the possibility of shooting people with impunity,” said Phil Cook, a gun violence researcher and professor emeritus at Duke University. “But that’s what the situation is.”

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and other top brass have garnered praise for supporting street outreach and other community violence prevention programs. On November 7, Johnson announced that would be retiring at the end of the year, and Lightfoot made the unusual move of tapping an outsider, former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck, as Johnson’s interim replacement. Beck is credited with shifting the LAPD toward more community engagement, and he led the department when the city shifted its focus to the sort of violence prevention tactics that advocates want to expand in Chicago. 

Norman Livingston Kerr, the city’s director of violence prevention, works with outreach organizations to help curb crime in neighborhoods saturated with shootings. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Anti-violence advocates and Lightfoot administration officials see state-mandated gun control as one important remedy for the violence, but they also say Chicago’s geographic location limits the effectiveness of legislative reforms. Illinois already ranks above average when it comes to states with the strongest gun laws, but the streets of Chicago are still flooded with thousands of weapons every year. That is because the city sits just a short drive away from states where the gun laws are much weaker. Traffickers exploit these differences to load up on firearms across the border and then spirit them back into Chicago. One analysis found that 60 percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Chicago between 2013 and 2016 originated out of state, most notably in Indiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin.

In the absence of national legislation to stanch that inflow, Chicago has increasingly turned to the playbooks of other metropolitan areas that have targeted violence like a disease by treating the socioeconomic factors that encourage it — namely poverty, joblessness, trauma, and lack of housing. 

New York City and Los Angeles have established violence prevention departments within their mayoral offices to coordinate street outreach and help funnel resources to possible victims and perpetrators of shootings. These departments boast budgets reaching into the tens of millions of dollars a year. The same year Los Angeles set up its department, the city’s murders dipped below 400 and have stayed there ever since. A 2017 evaluation by California State University researchers concluded 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. 

Lightfoot’s deputy mayor of public safety, Susan Lee, is credited with helping devise Los Angeles’s strategy. She joined the Lightfoot administration after serving in a high-level post with Chicago CRED, which runs a public health-oriented program managed by Arne Duncan, a former Chicago public schools chief and education secretary in the Obama administration who emerged as an outspoken critic of Chicago’s violence prevention approach during Emanuel’s waning days in office. 

Some prominent gun violence researchers have called into question the public health framework, saying it tends to minimize the important role that the criminal justice system plays in preventing shootings by arresting and convicting the people who commit them. But advocates in Chicago stress that they are not urging a halt to policing entirely, only that the city should pursue a much more expansive strategy that includes more progressive, community-centered initiatives.

Whatever the case, a public health approach has taken root, setting in motion a profound transformation in how Chicago seeks to overcome what Lightfoot called the “the biggest challenge we face.” 

One of Lightfoot’s early steps upon entering city hall was creating the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety. The office is charged with directing a citywide violence prevention strategy as well as leveraging funds and other resources from across the public and private sectors to support existing programs. 

“This is the first time that we’ve had this much momentum,” said Norman Livingston Kerr, a veteran anti-violence worker whom Lightfoot tapped as the office’s director of violence prevention. “This is a great opportunity to change the circumstances that we’ve been seeing for a number of years now.” 

The office is also seeking to expand the number of interventions for people in their 20s and 30s whose circumstances increase their likelihood of being shot or who may have already been involved in crimes themselves. The approach hinges on upending old ways of thinking to ensure this older population is reoriented through the provision of jobs and other services. 

“This is a challenge for people to understand because, traditionally, this group has been one that’s been reserved for law enforcement to lock up,” Kerr said. “But we know a lot of these high-risk individuals can change.” 

Lightfoot addresses participants of the an anti-violence march in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in May. [John J. Kim/Getty ]

Many advocates have lauded this new strategy as a fundamental step toward containing a plague that has spread mostly among young black and Latino men battered by Chicago’s legacy of discrimination and segregation.

“This is the first time in I don’t know how many decades, perhaps in history, where the city is not just looking at preventative measures, they’re also looking aggressively at intervention measures,” said Bocanegra of READI. “They’re not necessarily just putting on a Band-Aid.” 

But observers are also keeping a close eye on whether the new office receives enough support to bring interventions to scale. 

“The launch of that office was Lightfoot’s biggest step,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., director of the Illinois Justice Project, a criminal justice reform group. “The question now is: How will it be funded? How will it be staffed? And how seriously will the city take it?” 

Kerr said the office has hired six employees and plans to fill additional positions once the mayor lifts a hiring freeze. He disputed the view that the 2020 budget proposal did not go far enough in addressing the mayor’s signature issue, saying the city’s efforts were primed to grow. 

“We’re laying a really strong foundation,” he said. “Is it where we want to be at? It isn’t, but I believe we’ll get there.”