Editorial: Purple crosses, and breaking the pattern of violence

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A makeshift memorial is shown in 2015 along the sidewalk in the North Austin neighborhood where a 31-year-old man was shot and killed over the Labor Day weekend. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Since earlier this year, purple crosses have begun marking places where people have been shot on the West Side in the Austin neighborhood.

Sadly, the victim’s identity is often not much of a surprise when it’s time to put up a new purple cross. As Mick Dumke and Frank Main reported in Sunday’s Sun-Times, most shooting victims — usually, young, African-American men — were in trouble with the police or had a record of violence long before they were killed.

The pattern demonstrates the acute need for the city to step up efforts on all fronts to break the cycle of violence.


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To break that cycle, police for several years have been sending intervention teams into violence-prone neighborhoods to alert those who statistically are most likely to be injured or killed and to offer them alternatives, such as contacts for job training and other social services. The concept is based on West Side research by Yale University professor Andrew Papachristos, who found 70 percent of the killings between 2005 and 2010 were contained within a social network of 1,600 people out of a total population of 80,000.

Just 6 percent of the 80,000 people were involved in 70 percent of the murders. Those in the 6 percent group were 900 percent more likely to become  murder victims. Partly, that’s because members of the same network are likelier to share such behaviors — and risks — as carrying funds and committing crimes.

The intervention teams are a similar concept to that of CeaseFire, which sent former gangbangers and ex-convicts into dangerous neighborhoods to discourage violent encounters. But as James O’Shea reported in Sunday’s Sun-Times, Ceasefire has been sidelined by the budget stalemate in Springfield and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Chicago Police Department. This is something that needs serious rethinking. Chicago should be using every tool in the box to bring down the number of shootings.

In Austin, the violence is off the charts. Nearly 300 people have been shot this year. On Sunday, a 22-year-old man walking on West Chicago and a 23-year-old man sitting in a parked car on West Central were shot. On Saturday, it was a 55-year-old man on a sidewalk on West Crystal, a 36-year-old man on West North Avenue, a 30-year-old man on North Lemon and a 29-year-old man on North Leamington.

As Dandre Kelly, who grew up in Austin, said, “It’s a blessing to see 25 around here.”

Most of the violence involves a small group of gang members and drug dealers who might be perpetrators on one day and victims the next. In a pilot program, intervention teams — made up of law officers and sometimes clergy members and community representatives — started knocking on doors in Austin and similar districts that are home to poverty and any number of illegal guns, warning young men with worrisome records and their families of the risks they were taking of becoming victims themselves. They also warn of the legal risks, such as being prosecuted federally as a career armed criminal with a minimum of 15 years in prison if an individual has piled up enough felonies.

More than 950 people have been contacted through the program, called “custom notifications,” since 2010. The encounters are designed to be respectful, and no one has to participate if he doesn’t want to.

Too many neighborhoods resemble war zones, where bullets fly day and night, and no one feels safe. Flooding those areas with police officers after a crime is committed will never be the full solution.

Investing in extra shoe leather upfront by city intervention teams can ease the need for police to rush to crime scenes later on.

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