The scourge of gun violence that plagued Chicago in 2016 is unacceptable. It breaks the hearts of all who care about our great city. Over the past five years I have looked into the eyes of parents and grandparents in their homes who just lost a child to gun violence, and marveled at their strength to persevere. I have held their hands and as a father, can’t imagine their grief and pain. We as a city owe them a different future, so others don’t have to experience that loss.
Gun violence is our shared civic disgrace. Ending it is our shared civic duty.
There is an understandable desire to pin 4,368 shootings on a single cause, in hopes we could identify a single cure. But the hard truth is, that much bloodshed has neither one cause nor one cure.
Lack of economic opportunity plays a significant role, but jobs alone will not put a stop to violence. Young people need positive role models in their lives to teach positive values, but caring adults are not enough to put gangs out of business. It would make a real difference if Illinois finally held criminals who break our gun laws accountable for their crimes by demanding certainty of justice, but even that by itself isn’t a cure-all. Each of these elements is part of the answer, and we must address them all – and then some.
Likewise, some suggest that police simply must “get tougher” in those communities where violence has become routine. If getting tougher means serious and certain prison sentences for gun crimes – as is the case in New York – then I agree, as do many in Chicago.
But anyone who thinks toughness alone will solve the problem hasn’t looked into the eyes of young men and women struggling with alienation. What they need is the sense that tomorrow will be better than today.
The flip side of this argument holds that long-standing societal ills – particularly generational poverty – are to blame, and if we solve that, we’ll solve crime. It’s undeniably true that decades of disinvestment in certain communities, compounded by segregation and blatant racial discrimination, produced a stubborn form of poverty that breeds hopelessness and diminishes us all. If you look at Pullman, Woodlawn or Bronzeville, you can see the impact jobs and economic growth – and ultimately hope and prosperity – have on reducing violence.
But if poverty were the driving factor behind gun violence, Chicago should have seen a reduction in violent crime – not an increase. Since 2011, we have experienced the largest drop in families in deep poverty of any major U.S. city – a decline of 22 percent.
Poverty and alienation alone cannot be blamed for someone killing without conscience. Think of Tyshawn Lee. A nine-year-old boy lured into an alley and executed for the crime of being the son of a rival gang member. Did poverty drive that depravity? No. That’s rooted in either a rejection of the values we share as human beings and those that allow our society to function — or from never having learned them in the first place. We have to acknowledge that there is evil in the world.
Parents have the primary responsibility, of course, to instill these values and provide for their children the kind of structure and guidance that will enable them to thrive. When parents fail to do this, someone else will fill that void. Will children learn their values from a parent, a teacher, a coach, a police officer or from the gang members on the street corner? In Chicago, we know the difference, and we are making mentoring universal for 8th, 9th and 10th grade young men in high crime neighborhoods. But at the end of the day, we will not have the level of public safety we all want without an engaged, proactive police department that has earned the trust of residents.
As we await the expected release of the Department of Justice’s report on the Chicago Police Department, and as we continue building on the reforms we have made over the past year, we have to learn the hard lessons seen in city after city since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Baltimore had a record high murder rate in 2015, and 2016 was only marginally better. Memphis and Indianapolis had record highs in murders in 2016. And last year many other cities saw significant increases in murders: San Diego (82 percent), Austin (75 percent), Las Vegas (39 percent), San Antonio (49 percent), Dallas (27 percent), Chicago (57 percent) and more.
If the reforms we must, and will, make are seen as demonizing the police, the police will naturally become reactive. They’re only human. The clarity, certainty and standards they need to do their jobs will be lost, and the result will be more violence. That is not a recipe for success in our communities. The only winners in that case are the gangbangers and drug dealers.
Still, there’s no question that further reforms are needed and much work remains to restore trust. So as we continue this important work, we have to make the highest professional standards and proactive policing heads and tails of the same coin. And the standards we set must be supported by strong training, superior technology and – ultimately – a sense of trust.
Every resident I talk to, no matter what neighborhood they live in, wants more police who know their community. They want those officers to be active partners in reducing crime. They know what I know: police are not the problem when it comes to public safety, they are a critical part of the solution.
Our city’s struggle against gun violence doesn’t have one simple solution. It requires a comprehensive approach, addressing a wide range of factors in a wide variety of ways. What we can’t do is retreat to our corners, insist there is just one answer, and point fingers at each other. We are all Chicagoans, this is all our struggle, and we will overcome it by being honest about its breadth, and coming together to do our part.
In every part of the city I’ve never met a rookie cop or a senior officer who doesn’t support mentoring or summer jobs for our youth. I’ve never met a resident who doesn’t want a robust, engaged police presence in their neighborhood. I’ve never met a family grieving the loss of a loved one in who doesn’t want the certainty of punishment for dangerous criminals. We agree on more than we sometimes realize.
It’s these people – the people of Chicago – that inspire me and give me hope.
This fall I participated in a BAM circle at Morgan Park High School. Those young men, who had once been on the precipice of dropping out, now had pride in their eyes as they discussed which college they want to attend and how they were buckling down to study for their ACT tests. I stand in awe of Nate and Cleo Pendleton, who have taken their unimaginable loss and turned it into a point of action to prevent violence and keep other parents from experiencing their pain. I have spoken with those who have made mistakes in life, served their time and now have a new opportunity through jobs initiatives like CTA’s Second Chance Program. I have seen people like Alfonso Johnson, a CTA employee with two kids in college now, beam when they succeed and are promoted to bigger roles. You can’t help but be inspired for our future, and know that we can make a difference if we come together and hear each other.
So as we start 2017, let us resolve to join together to ensure that Chicago is not defined or limited by our struggle with gun violence. Instead, let us strive to make Chicago a place of hope, opportunity and security for all its residents, no matter who they are, where they live or what their circumstances are.