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Chicago’s not-so-random gang violence: Just 6% of gang ‘factions’ tied to most shootings studied

An especially violent 18 days last summer might have seemed like a gang free-for-all. It wasn’t, researcher finds. He’s aiming to use those findings to help stem the violence.

Chicago police officers last Fourth of July weekend in the 100 block of North Latrobe Avenue in Austin, investigating the shootings of two people, including a 7-year-old girl.
Chicago police officers last Fourth of July weekend in the 100 block of North Latrobe Avenue in Austin, investigating the shootings of two people, including a 7-year-old girl. They were among 416 people shot in Chicago between the Father’s Day and Fourth of July weekends.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times file

For 18 days last summer, it seemed Chicago’s gangs were locked in a free-for-all of random violence.

Between the Father’s Day and Fourth of July weekends, 416 people were shot — 74 of them killed — with the worst of the carnage centered on two historically violent neighborhoods: Englewood and Austin.

Digging deeper, Northwestern University sociology professor Andrew Papachristos found something surprising: The violence largely involved only a small fraction of the city’s gang “factions,” just 6%.

Beyond that, Papachristos, a pioneer in the use of social network science to understand gun crimes, found that more than half of the victims came from small networks of people who, because of those ties, are highly likely to get shot. On Father’s Day weekend, for instance, 104 people were shot. Fully one-third of them were in such networks, he found.

“Gun violence,” he says, “is tragic, but, in the majority of cases, is decidedly not random.”

Mekhi James.
Mekhi James.
Provided
Police cordon off an SUV outside West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park after 3-year-old Mekhi James was shot while riding in the vehicle with his father in Austin last June 20. His father rushed Mekhi to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead — one of 104 people shot over a particularly violent Father’s Day weekend last year.
Police cordon off an SUV outside West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park after 3-year-old Mekhi James was shot while riding in the vehicle with his father in Austin last June 20. His father rushed Mekhi to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead — one of 104 people shot over a particularly violent Father’s Day weekend last year.
Sun-Times file

Papachristos is aiming to get violence prevention groups to use social network science to identify people at risk of getting shot and reach out to them.

“What this could do is amplify real-time outreach efforts,” he says. “This could help them respond more quickly.”

He and his colleagues identify people who’ve been arrested together. They assemble charts that look like spider webs that represent people who are connected to each other through arrests. The more of those people who’ve been shot, the greater the risk of others in the network meeting the same fate, according to Papachristos.

In one such network, 19 people were shot from 2018 through last year’s Fourth of July weekend, Papachristos’s research found. Six of them were shot last year in the months leading up to that weekend.

Papachristos says such information can help outreach workers sharpen their strategies.

“Say you have 40 factions in Austin, and they’re dynamic,” he says. “It’s good to know if you even have an ‘in’ with the network to start with and that you’re following the right leads. It’s also good to know that the other 94% were not doing stuff.”

Papachristos relies on the police for arrest data and information about who’s in which gang.

The way the police in Chicago identify gang members has come under fire, though, by civil rights activists, who say the information is sometimes outdated or wrong and can haunt someone who gets falsely branded as a gang member.

Papachristos says, “It’s what we have to work with.”

Andrew Papachristos.
Andrew Papachristos.
Northwestern University

Papachristos was working at Yale University about a decade ago when he won recognition for research that showed nearly two-thirds of shootings and murders in Chicago occur in small social networks. His research was aimed at locating potential shooting victims.

But, in 2012, Garry McCarthy, who was then Chicago’s police superintendent, took that work in a different direction. Under McCarthy, the Chicago Police Department created a “Strategic Subject List” that targeted people deemed likely to become involved in a shooting — not only as victims but looking at them as potential shooters.

The risk scores were based on arrests for gun crimes, violent crimes or drugs; the number of times a person had been assaulted or shot; the person’s age at the time of the last arrest; gang membership; and a formula that rated whether that person was becoming more actively involved in crime.

Nearly 400,000 people in Chicago landed on the list.

Each was given a score on a scale of zero to 500, the highest risk. About 4,000 people were ranked 400 to 500, according to the police. About 125 people got a score of 500.

The Strategic Subject List was scrapped in 2019 after the city of Chicago’s inspector general questioned the reliability of its risk assessments.

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst in New Orleans, didn’t go that far, saying the risk scores “may be useful in predicting violence,” but that “their effectiveness as part of Chicago’s crime-fighting arsenal is in question.”

McCarthy said those data-driven strategies were key to reducing the number of shootings. During his five-year tenure under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the number of killings in Chicago was far lower than it has been in the five years since he was fired in late 2015 over the scandal involving Laquan McDonald, who was fatally shot by an officer who went to prison for murder.

Papachristos’ research paper focused in part on the clients of violence-prevention groups and how they have fared. He examined shootings of people participating in Chicago CRED and Communities Partnering 4 Peace, known as CP4P. He identified 41 people involved with those groups and in social networks at the center of the violence between the Father’s Day and Fourth of July weekends last year.

Seven participants — 17% — were shot during that period, according to Papachristos, though he says he couldn’t draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the programs based on that limited information.

On Dec. 29, Chicago CRED, CP4P and the anti-violence group READI Chicago acknowledged “big setbacks” last year after the city’s murder total hit 769, one of the highest in decades, and proclaimed: “2020 must be an aberration, not a trend.”

The groups noted that they and others are expected to get nearly $60 million in public funding this year in addition to the $30 million they’re getting from private sources.

“Nevertheless, it remains a fraction of the overall spending on policing, prosecutions and prisons, which runs into the billions,” they wrote of the public financing.

Arne Duncan.
Arne Duncan.
Sun-Times file

CRED pointed to Roseland as a neighborhood that benefited from its outreach, counseling, life coaches, job training and education last year. Roseland saw a 23% rise in the number of nonfatal shootings in 2020 over the prior year, but killings went down 17%, according to CRED. Researchers are looking into how much CRED’s efforts might have contributed to that.

“Chicago’s murder rate should be on par with other big cities,” according to Arne Duncan, CRED’s founder and a former U.S. education secretary and Chicago schools CEO. “Right now, we’re not even close. We have to think and act very differently.”

Papachristos says society is rethinking how to reduce violence outside a traditional policing model — and science is key to the success of the few hundred civilian anti-violence workers in Chicago.

“It means mobilizing these ‘preventionists’ in fair and just ways — using network data to distribute the relevant resources to those in harm’s way,” he says. “This can be done in the same way we mobilize contact tracing to minimize the spread of COVID-19.”

Kids play last June outside the Austin home of 3-year-old Mekhi James, who was shot and killed while his father was driving him home on Father’s Day weekend.
Kids play last June outside the Austin home of 3-year-old Mekhi James, who was shot and killed while his father was driving him home on Father’s Day weekend. He was one of 104 people shot in Chicago that weekend.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file