Youth violence, policing and the tough road ahead for Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson

Johnson and Chicago police don’t have to like each other, but they will have to work together to curb violence, including among teens. Young people and their families should be part of the conversation about solutions.

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Video posted on social media shows youths jumping on cars, kicking them and setting fires. Second Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins blamed a “total breakdown in command and control” at the Chicago Police Department for the poor response.

Video posted on social media shows young people jumping on cars, kicking them and setting fires last weekend. One alderperson blamed a “total breakdown in command and control” among Chicago police for the poor response.

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When Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson tweeted pictures from an iftar gathering he attended at the Muslim Community Center in Old Irving Park last weekend, angry Chicagoans quickly pounced, berating him for not rushing downtown where two teenage boys had been shot during weekend chaos.

Johnson has yet to be sworn in, but Chicagoans are nevertheless looking anxiously for clues as to how he will approach the city’s most pressing problem: public safety and crime. The fear and anxiety will only increase as summer, and the potential for more mayhem and violence, draws closer.

Johnson raised even more ire when he eventually weighed in on last weekend’s “destructive activity” in the Loop and at 31st Street Beach, where a 14-year-old boy was wounded by gunfire. His statement said it was “not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities ...,” but he failed to specifically mention that children had been shot.

Every action Johnson takes, every tweet, every statement, matters now in the public’s eyes, even though he won’t take the 5th Floor at City Hall until next month. The current Lightfoot administration will be put to its own test this weekend when heightened security in the Loop takes effect.

Editorial

Editorial

Once in office, if Johnson fails to quickly show he can tackle the city’s great white whale, Chicagoans will pay the price.

To do that, Johnson’s first assignment is to engage with Chicago police. Progressives who are Johnson’s biggest supporters are quick to repeat the mantra about tackling the “root causes” of crime with violence prevention and social programs. Such programs are undoubtedly needed but take time to be effective.

A cooperative, engaged, professional Chicago Police Department is essential.

As mayor, Johnson has to find a way to make inroads on that front. He will have to engage with officers, gain their trust and boost morale so that CPD’s expertise is put to good use to combat crime, including the kind of violence carried out by millennials and Gen Z-ers last weekend.

CPD, in turn, must show willingness to work with Johnson, not fight him. Grumbling and resisting court-mandated policing reforms does a disservice to the city that CPD is sworn to serve — and, we think, to the profession of policing as a whole.

Officers with bad attitudes who refuse to do their jobs must be disciplined. Take the experience of Lenora Dennis, the good Samaritan who helped a couple who were beaten and robbed in last weekend’s violence. Dennis told Sun-Times reporter Tom Schuba that police kept driving by, ignoring the assault.

And when Dennis and the couple went to the Central District station to file a police report, the desk sergeant told Dennis the attack took place because Johnson was elected, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Childish, disrespectful statements like that put the entire department in a terrible light. But can anyone be surprised at such attitudes when CPD’s leadership apparently doesn’t have its act together, as evidenced by the screaming match about the violence that Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said took place between outgoing Interim Chicago Police Supt. Eric Carter and Chief of Patrol Brian McDermott?

When the top brass is a discombobulated mess, it’s sure to trickle down to the rank and file. The city, and those officers who do their jobs as professionals, deserve better.

Connecting with youth

Johnson is right when he says the city must provide safe spaces for youth to gather. Teenagers and young adults from the West and South sides simply don’t have the same recreational resources their peers on the North Side and in nearby suburbs enjoy. Heading downtown is one of the few simple luxuries many of these youth — most of them Black and Brown — can partake in.

Yet young people who follow the rules get lumped in with their counterparts who break the law. They wind up paying the price, in curfews — which research has shown don’t work to curb youth violence — and restricted access to places such as Water Tower Place and Millennium Park.

Chicago has boosted support for anti-violence programs, a good sign for the future. And young people and their families should be included in the city’s conversation about violence prevention.

It’s easy to say, as many older Chicagoans do, that young people behave recklessly because of lax parenting, or that boredom is no excuse for violence, or that crimes deserve punishment, period. There’s some truth in all those statements.

But many adults don’t know what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood without the promise of opportunities. That is an underlying, long-standing problem that must be addressed.

All eyes are on Chicago to see how this city handles the violence that is too often — and wrongly — the only story told about this great city.

Johnson can’t let the background noise and the Chicago-haters distract him from Job 1: working to make all of us safer.

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