In addressing violence, mayor plans to confront absentee fathers

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Those who have heard the broad strokes of the mayor’s planned policy address were surprised by how direct Emanuel plans to be about absentee fathers — a sociological problem he views as a driving force behind Chicago’s cycle of gang violence. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been raising eyebrows with his private previews of an upcoming policy address on violence, in which he confronts the issue of absentee fathers in African-American families.

Sources said stakeholders invited to City Hall to hear broad strokes of the mayor’s speech were surprised by how direct Emanuel plans to be about a sociological problem he views as a driving force behind Chicago’s cycle of gang violence.

During sessions akin to focus groups, Emanuel talked about encountering only one black father in all of the homes, hospital rooms, churches and funerals he has visited after innocent children were gunned down or wounded on the streets of Chicago.

Much has been written and said about the importance of having two caring and involved parents and about the negative consequences of young men growing up without strong male role models.

To fill that void, Emanuel said he plans to expand the Becoming a Man program, which targets adolescent and teenage boys. BAM, which served 2,700 students in the last school year, has seen crimes fall and graduation rates soar among its participants. The mayor wants to boost the funding for BAM and other mentoring programs to include 8,000 students, sources said.

The only question is whether Emanuel has the credibility to deliver that uncomfortable message about absentee fathers at a time when he faces deep distrust among African-American voters furious about his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video and convinced that their unsafe neighborhoods are still being left behind.

“It’s either courageous or foolhardy. But it’s a dialogue that needs to begin. You can’t have an honest discussion about the violence plaguing these neighborhoods without talking about the underlying sociological problem that drives gang recruitment,” said a mayoral confidante who asked to remain anonymous.

“The mayor is determined to find a way to break this cycle of violence,” the confidante added. “If he thinks this discussion is going to help, he’s going to do it, consequences not withstanding. He’s right that there needs to be a conversation about this. I’m not sure he’s the right messenger. But you can’t keep waiting for the right messenger to come along.”

Shari Runner, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, was among the movers and shakers in attendance.

Runner refused to confirm or deny the mayor’s tough-love message. But she disagreed with the premise of blaming absentee black fathers, no matter who the messenger is.

“The absence of the father in the black community is not attributable to the fact that they do not want to be there. When all of the fathers are either in prison or dead, they can’t possibly be at the bedsides of their children,” Runner said.

“The mass incarceration piece is a policy. Over the last 30 years, we decided to put everyone in jail for minor drug offenses. The violence piece results from no jobs, poor education, guns and drugs flooding our community. Those things all together create a dangerous environment for the African-American male.”

Runner said the people in the room with the mayor “were honest with him,” but she has no idea whether that feedback will soften or reshape the mayor’s speech.

“What I’m encouraged by is that there will be some focus put on this so we can start to cure the crisis occurring in our city,” Runner said.

“I want to hear his ideas on how we’re going to improve educational outcomes. How we’re going to convince corporations to provide jobs. How we’re going to engage disconnected youth who aren’t in school or working. How we’re going to reinvest in communities where all of this violence is taking place.”

Deputy mayor Andrea Zopp described the meetings as a “very open, honest and authentic conversation about some tough issues” so the mayor can “continue to frame his remarks.”

Zopp acknowledged that the absentee father in too many African-American families was part of the discussion.

“These are topics about which people do not always agree,” she said.

“We talked about the importance of parents. He feels very strongly about mentoring as a strong and proven pathway.”

Two weeks ago, Emanuel’s City Council floor leader told the Chicago Sun-Times the mayor plans to hire “hundreds” of additional police officers to confront a 50 percent spike in homicides and shootings that has the city on pace to record 750 murders in 2016.

Emanuel subsequently confirmed that his 2017 budget would be “built around” the need to hire more officers.

The chairmen of the City Council’s black and Hispanic caucuses have argued that the Chicago Police Department needs at least 500 and as many as 1,000 additional officers — “over and above attrition” — to ease a severe manpower shortage masked by a 17 percent surge in police overtime.

Under Emanuel, police retirements have outpaced hiring by 975 officers. There are currently 468 sworn vacancies.

During the private briefings, Emanuel would only talk about putting “significant numbers” of additional police officers on the street.

Other sources said the mayor was being urged to bolster the depleted ranks of detectives to raise an abysmal clearance rate for homicides, shootings and other crimes. He’s also being urged to hire more sergeants to get officers out of the defensive crouch they’ve been in for fear of being captured on the next YouTube video.

In a commentary that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal, Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo was quoted as saying that “the streets are gone” because police officers no longer believe that politicians and the public have their backs.

Earlier this week, Emanuel was asked how many additional police officers he plans to hire.

He responded by talking about the after-school, summer-jobs and ex-offender programs he has created and about the economic development he is attempting to bring to impoverished inner-city neighborhoods to reverse decades of disinvestment.

“Additional resources for our Police Department [and] technology is also part of public safety. Stiffer gun laws as it relates to both access and repeat offenders is part of public safety. Making sure our kids are able to handle things,” Emanuel said.

“You have a right to ask about police. But I’m trying to give you direction. I am not going to look at this issue [that way] because it’s not a one-nail issue. You have to come at it in a comprehensive way because it is a complex problem.”

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