Let's Meet: Chicago Police's New Approach To Gangs

Reginald Akeem Berry Sr.    i i

At a news conference, former gang member Reginald Akeem Berry Sr. lashed out against Chicago's new policing initiative to reduce gang-related violence, which he claims offers gang members an "ultimatum" rather than an "alternative." M. Spencer Green/AP hide caption

itoggle caption M. Spencer Green/AP
Reginald Akeem Berry Sr.

At a news conference, former gang member Reginald Akeem Berry Sr. lashed out against Chicago's new policing initiative to reduce gang-related violence, which he claims offers gang members an "ultimatum" rather than an "alternative."

M. Spencer Green/AP

In Chicago, police are trying a different approach to stop gang violence.

First, they meet with gang members and let them hear firsthand from residents who are tired of violence. The gangs are even offered help finding jobs.

But then comes the part you might call "All for One and One for All": If any one gang member is suspected of a serious crime, police arrest as many of the group as they can find for any other infraction they might have committed.

Police are experimenting with the controversial approach — rounding up as many as 60 gang members in one crackdown — on Chicago's west side.

Chicago has one of the largest gang populations in the country, and police have targeted one of the most notorious gangs operating in the city, as it tries to bust drug sales and drive down gang-related murders and violence. Last month, police and the FBI arrested scores of members of the Vice Lords gang, spurred by the murder of an off-duty officer in 2008.

Two Cousins

On top of a bookcase in Lorraine Sanya's dining room, a small candle flickers next to a framed flier with portraits of her grandson Percy Lavelle Day and nephew Tyrone Williams. "Assist in Solving a Double Homicide," the flier reads.

A framed flier with portraits of Percy Lavelle Day and Tyrone Williams i i

A framed flier with portraits of Percy Lavelle Day and Tyrone Williams sits on top of a bookcase in Lorraine Sanya's home. The cousins were gunned down as they ran toward Sanya's home in 2009. Cheryl Corley/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley/NPR
A framed flier with portraits of Percy Lavelle Day and Tyrone Williams

A framed flier with portraits of Percy Lavelle Day and Tyrone Williams sits on top of a bookcase in Lorraine Sanya's home. The cousins were gunned down as they ran toward Sanya's home in 2009.

Cheryl Corley/NPR

The cousins, Day, 17, and Williams, 19, were gunned down as they ran toward Sanya's home on Sept. 25, 2009.

Day, an honor roll student at a technical school, died in the backyard. Williams, a college sophomore, died in the dining room. "He fell right there," says Sanya, looking at a spot on the floor next to the bookcase.

"He came in, and he said, 'Aunty, I've been shot,' " Sanya recalls. "And for a quick moment, I said, 'Oh, Tyrone, stop playing.' "

When Sanya emerged from her bedroom, she found her nephew lying on the dining room floor. "And what hurts is that I was hiding when I heard the shots," Sanya says.

Police say the two cousins were mistaken for gang members. There have been no arrests.

A Change In Strategy

Now Chicago police are trying a new strategy in Sanya's west side neighborhood and other areas in Chicago's 11th police district. This summer, Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis and other law enforcement officials held what is known as a "call-in," summoning a small group of former and current gang members on parole to a meeting.

More On Gang Intervention In L.A.

Sanya, her daughter and son-in-law were there, too, and spoke directly to the gang members. "I explained to them the effect that the death of my grandson and nephew has taken on the family," she says. "It's like we [are] in a time warp, you know."

That sort of direct contact between gangs and residents is part of the Chicago Gang Violence Reduction Initiative. Gang members are also offered help with applying for jobs, finishing school or getting drug treatments.

Then, police warn, if one gang member commits a murder, the entire gang can expect even more scrutiny from law enforcement agencies looking for illegal activity. Weis announced recently that's exactly what happened after a gang-related murder occurred.

Over a month and a half, more than 60 people associated with the reported perpetrator's street gang, the Black Souls, were arrested and charged with misdemeanors and felonies.

"It is our obligation to the residents of Chicago to attack this violence from every angle and with every resource," Weis said at a recent news conference. "The message will be made very clear: Gang violence must stop."

Impact Beyond Chicago

This strategy has been used in Boston, Cincinnati and a number of other cities.

Criminologist David Kennedy with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice is often on hand to oversee its implementation. Kennedy says Chicago's pilot and another under way in Los Angeles are even more crucial because of each city's large number of gangs.

He says it usually takes a series of focused investigations by police before people believe the strategy is real. "It took three times before the streets in Cincinnati believed it," Kennedy says, "and then at the end of the first year, there was a 50 percent reduction in gang homicide."

Mixed Reception

Jim Allen i i

Jim Allen, 32, who says he's been a member of the Vice Lords, speaks with reporters after a news conference. Allen says Chicago's pilot strategy to curb gang-related violence on the city's west side will have an impact, as gang leaders are fearful of tougher federal charges they may face as a result. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
Jim Allen

Jim Allen, 32, who says he's been a member of the Vice Lords, speaks with reporters after a news conference. Allen says Chicago's pilot strategy to curb gang-related violence on the city's west side will have an impact, as gang leaders are fearful of tougher federal charges they may face as a result.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Not everyone is completely comfortable with the tactic. The governor of Illinois and some Chicago aldermen say it gives gangs too much status if the superintendent of police meets with them.

A group of current and former gang members are not too happy with it, either. At their own news conference, Reginald Akeem Berry, an ex-convict who runs a program called Saving Our Sons, lashed out at the gang summit initiative.

"They're giving an ultimatum ... instead of an alternative," Berry said. "What we're offering these young men are alternatives, saying, 'Listen, brother, get off the corner selling these bags, and come on this construction site and pick up this brick.' "

Jim Allen, a 32-year-old self-described member of the Vice Lords, organized the news conference. He says gang leaders are afraid of the strategy because of the threat of federal charges.

Allen says he thinks the police arrests did have an impact. "It's definitely a dent, because that gang didn't have a lot of members to begin with," Allen says. "It just may be the demise, to a certain degree, for that gang."

Moving Forward

Weis says if gang-related murders decline on Chicago's west side, this new strategy will be implemented in other high-crime police districts.

Sanya is hoping for that type of success. "Nobody should have to go through what we have gone through, but so many parents, they have. And I want it to just stop," Sanya says.

Police plan to have another call-in with other gang members soon, but they are not saying when or where.

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