Pick 'Em Up, Lock 'Em Up: Getting Tough On Gangs

Illinois Senator Mark Kirk recently suggested that federal agents arrest tens of thousands of Chicago gang members. But would that tactic work? Host Michel Martin asks Illinois Congressman Danny Davis, former federal prosecutor Ron Safer, and reporter Rob Wildeboer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll talk about why you might have been hearing an awful lot about an ad for Cheerios that's causing an uproar online because of the casting. We'll talk with an editor from Adweek about this in just a few minutes. But first we turn to Chicago and the ongoing debate about what to do about gang violence there, and by extension across the country. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk says he's been thinking about this for some time, but particularly since a young woman was killed just about a mile from President Obama's Chicago home earlier this year. This is the idea he shared in an interview with a reporter from Chicago's Fox 32.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS INTERVIEW)

SENATOR MARK KIRK: My top priority is to arrest the Gangster Disciples gang, which is 18,000 people. I would like to do a mass pickup of them and put 'em all in the Thomson Correctional facility.

MARTIN: But the reactions of other Chicago officials have been decidedly mixed from cool to furious, including Illinois Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush, who said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times - and I'm quoting here - he called it an upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about, unquote. We wanted to get more perspective about this plan so we've called Congressman Danny Davis. He's a Democrat representing the seventh district in Illinois - that's in Chicago. Former federal prosecutor Ronald Safer led a crackdown against leaders of Chicago's Gangster Disciples in the 1990s. He is now managing partner at the law firm Schiff Hardin. Also with us is Rob Wildeboer, he's the crime and legal affairs reporter for member station WBEZ Chicago. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ROB WILDEBOER: Thanks.

CONGRESSMAN DANNY DAVIS: Thank you very much.

RONALD SAFER: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Rob Wildeboer, I'm going to start with you. Can you tell us a little bit more about Senator Kirk's plan? How it's different from the approach that city leaders are currently taking to gangs.

WILDEBOER: Well, to be honest we don't know a ton about the plan. It's very vague and that's probably one of the problems here. And I think that compared to what the city's doing, which is, you know, trying to focus on high crime areas, and that's what we saw work in New York City. You know, in 1990 New York City had like 2,250 murders. They cut that rate by 80 percent today through targeted, you know, focusing on high crime areas - pushing the crime indoors, and thereby kind of eliminating a lot of the interaction that takes place on the streets. And we have a police chief here in Chicago who is from New York throughout the nineties, and, you know, knows kind of what happened there and is trying to implement that here in Chicago. This otherwise - Kirk's plan, just pull up 18,000 gang members and arrest them, seems like kind of a blunt way to go about this as opposed to a precise targeted effort.

MARTIN: Well you know, Rob, of course that New York's policing strategy, which is called stop-and-frisk, is in federal court now. It engenders its own issues. But is his perception, is the police chief's perception that the crime problem in Chicago has the same dimensions as in New York - it has the same causes, it's got the same pattern, for example - that this would be addressed by what's called stop-and-frisk - it has a lot of other names like community policing - or sort of focusing on, what is it - the broken windows policing, as it were?

WILDEBOER: Yeah, the police chief here talks a lot about some of those same things, says we here in Chicago are doing stop-and-frisks; he points to, you know, the eight, ten thousand guns we pull off the street every year and says, you don't think people are just coming up to us and giving those to us, do you? No, it's 'cause we're stopping them. So he would say they do practice a stop-and-frisk type thing here. And of course there are differences between Chicago and New York, but I think if you're looking to bring down homicides in a major city in America, you cannot ignore the example that New York - the path they've taken. I mean if any politician in 1990 had said, hey I'm going to reduce murders in this town by 80 percent - I mean, they would have been considered crazy, right? And that's exactly what happened. So you have to look at that example.

MARTIN: Ron Safer, you did help take down leaders of the Gangster Disciples in the 1990s. Can you briefly tell us about the process you went through then and what you think of Senator Kirk's proposal?

SAFER: Yes, the process that we used is to utilize a remarkable federal law that appears to be written perfectly for the Chicago gang situation. It's called the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Law. And what that says is that you can prosecute in federal court the leaders, organizers, supervisors of a narcotics organization. And put them in jail for a very, very long time. You do not have to prove that they were involved in that specific narcotics transaction, but rather that they played a supervisory role. And that is the way you want to go. That's the way we went. I think we should not get distracted by a literal interpretation of what Senator Kirk said. Nobody would really advocate scooping up 1,800 people and putting them in jail. It's hyperbole. It's a way to get the dialogue started and we ought to have that dialogue.

MARTIN: He said 18,000 people...

SAFER: Eighteen thousand...

MARTIN: ...he's not available today or we would have asked him ourselves - but he seemed to say that that's what he wanted to do. I mean, in the press conference that he gave, that he wanted to literally - what do you think he meant?

SAFER: I think he meant to start this dialogue, which is an important one. We have not focused on the gangs in the last 15 years, really, in Chicago. And that's not to say that we're not doing gang prosecutions, but we haven't focused on it. And Chicago's problem is very different from New York's. In Chicago, street gangs control 95 percent of the retail drug sales in Chicago. They are narcotics organizations. And we have to approach them as such. We have tools to do that, but that doesn't mean sweeping up the kids who are on the street, you know, taking all of the risk being there - put there by the gang leaders to be shot at, to be arrested, to funnel the money to them - those kids are as much victims of the gangs as innocent bystanders are.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Illinois Senator Mark Kirk's suggestion that a way to address Chicago's gang problem would be to lock up thousands of Chicago gang members. We're talking about this with crime reporter Rob Wildeboer; former federal prosecutor Ronald Safer - that's who was speaking just now. Congressman Danny Davis is with us. Congressman, I'm betting that you are hearing from both sides on this. I'm sure you're hearing from people who say, do whatever you need to deal with this and I'm sure you're hearing from people who say that that's ridiculous and overreaching. So tell us your thoughts about this.

DAVIS: Well we're hearing all of that, but we've heard most of that before. We've been hearing that for years. And so there's not anything new about it in terms of hearing it. But I do think that I don't know what Senator Kirk meant. I mean, I was dumbfounded. I mean, I've never heard him say anything like that before. And so I was amazed that he - whatever he meant - I don't think that was the way to approach it. It's impractical. It would not work. It cannot work. But I think the experiences that we've had are the ones that was just mentioned, where you take the leadership of these enterprises and prosecute them, convict them, and put them away.

But to talk about rounding up and putting into something like a semi-concentration camp this many people at one time, some of whom would be, you know, wouldn't even have any real idea as to why they were being handled that way. But I think we just heard what's really - what will work and, you know, I just - I haven't spoken to Senator Kirk relative to this, although we've worked together in the past on a number of issues. We've had joint town hall meetings together. I just don't know who was advising the senator at this point. I don't know what he was hoping to accomplish.

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask you this though, what's wrong with it? Why wouldn't it work?

DAVIS: What's wrong with it?

MARTIN: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

DAVIS: It's almost like the creation of a police state. First of all, even the data - I mean, he doesn't know whether or not there are 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples. I don't think anybody knows that. And I don't think anybody knows where they are, or where you would find them, or who they are. I mean, you'd be running through the community like Gestapos. You'd be, you know suspending people's rights. You'd be doing all kinds of ridiculous things. And that's why it's a ridiculous statement. It's a ridiculous comment.

MARTIN: Is part of your objections, Congressman, the fact that you - neither you nor Mr. Rush, who was also not available today nor the other congresswoman whose district encompasses the city core - were consulted on this. Is that also part of the - your concern?

DAVIS: Well, I would have thought that if he was serious about it, that perhaps we would have been consulted. And, but I think more than that, it's just the articulation of an approach that would be absolutely foreign to the principles and practices in our country. I mean that's just not the way to do it and...

SAFER: ...And I agree with that...

MARTIN: ...Go ahead, Mr. Safer...

SAFER: I agree with that a hundred percent, and Representative Davis, you know, has been a fine representative of this community and done an outstanding job. And he's absolutely right. It would violate all sorts of constitutional amendments. But I don't think - I think it's the wrong question. We shouldn't waste our time being distracted by, do you really want to round up 18,000 people? Here is the purpose that was served when, you know, question the approach, well here we are. We're talking about this. Representative Rush's statement was on the front page of the Sun-Times. It raised the dialogue, and that's good. Because they're both right. Senator Kirk is right that we ought to be focusing our scarce resources on protecting the people in these communities from the people who would prey on our youth for their own financial gain.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break but...

SAFER: ...Representative...

MARTIN: ...Excuse me, Mr. Safer, we need to take a short break but we are going to come right back to this conversation. We are going to continue this conversation just after just a brief pause. Former federal prosecutor Ron Safer is with us. Also with us, Congressman Danny Davis and crime reporter Rob Wildeboer. We're talking about tactics for fighting gangs in Chicago. And remember, you can share your thoughts with us on social media on Twitter. We are @TellMeMoreNPR. We hope you'll all stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'll be right back.

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