Editorial: A wake-up call for Chicago from across the pond

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Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, spoke to the Chicago City Council on Wednesday and didn’t shy away from the issue of the city’s gun violence. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Follow @csteditorialsThe Chicago City Council didn’t see this one coming.

The aldermen invited Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, to the Council’s chambers Wednesday to accept Chicago’s Medal of Merit, only to listen to her call out the city for its mounting murder toll.

“I don’t need to tell you that there is a blot on the landscape here in Chicago in the very high murder rate,’’ Robinson told the council members – or “councillors” — as the Irish Legal News reported in describing what it said “should have been a mere diplomatic function.”

Perhaps more importantly, Robinson urged the city to look beyond “criminal law, gangs and policing” in attempting to address a murder count that already has surpassed the 500-mark this year.

The “social sustainability” of Chicago depends on tackling the city’s violence problem, warned Robinson, who cut short her term as Ireland’s president in 1997 to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“I would encourage you to look at the poverty and inclusion elements of this very serious problem and to see it in terms of something to tackle,” she said.

Robinson’s pointed words were yet another wake-up call to Chicago to get serious — deeply and thoughtfully — about the city’s horrendous level of violence. Chicago’s 50 percent surge in homicides is drawing not only national, but international, attention. And even outsiders looking in can see that more than changes in the Chicago Police Department are needed to address the situation.

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Next week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to make a major policy speech on the issue of public safety. When he does, we hope and expect that he, too, will make clear that curtailing violence involves much more than police work alone.

Sure, more cops — beyond filling the holes created by attrition — should make a difference, especially officers who are not run ragged by long hours and mounting overtime.

A beefed-up detective force could better tackle a disastrous murder clearance rate that only emboldens killers who continue to walk the streets, encouraging an “anti-snitch” culture among fearful witnesses.

More extensive use of police body cameras and a remodeled Independent Police Review Authority — with teeth and an adequate budget — are just a few measures that could help mend the community’s broken trust with police. Tougher gun laws that raise minimum sentencing requirements are long overdue.

But beyond all that, the social, academic and economic fabric of crime-ridden and high-poverty neighborhoods must be strengthened.

Chicago has experienced more than its fair share of school closings that left kids in tough neighborhoods walking longer distances to class. Let’s focus on improving the schools left standing and reducing their dropout rates so more kids graduate with diplomas that mean something — and lead somewhere. A key strategy in this effort, which the Chicago Public Schools have made progress on, is to get kids through their freshman year of high school, something that’s been shown to be directly correlated with future academic success.

Especially in high-crime areas, more jobs and better mental health services are needed. Residents of neighborhoods that are particularly up against it should be folded into creative violence-prevention strategies. The old CeaseFire program, which sent former gang members and ex-convicts into tough areas to discourage gang flare-ups, is one approach that hires community members for anti-violence work; other models also may be worth exploring.

But let’s face it. It’s also time for families, beginning with mothers and fathers, to look deep within themselves. Are they watching their own sons and daughters and other relatives carefully enough for signs of gang activity or psychological problems that can lead to violence? Are they doing something about such red flags?

Robinson delivered a tough message this week, but the aldermen applauded her. They knew she was only speaking truth. Let’s hope Emanuel takes a similarly broad and thoughtful approach in his speech on public safety next week, and that it earns applause from every corner of the city.

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