Report: Chicago Gang Activity Spreading to Suburbs

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A new report confirms what many in suburban Chicago already know — that gangs are no longer just an inner-city problem. A report by the Chicago Crime Commission found that Chicago police have become skilled at disrupting gangland activity, so some gang members are moving their activities to the suburbs.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Chicago Crime Commission has released a detailed report called the Gang Book. It could become a best-selling guide for law enforcement groups, parents, and for gang-bangers. It's nearly 300 pages of information about gangs, their colors, their behavior, and their migration from the inner city to Chicago's suburbs.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

There are as many as 100 street gangs in the Chicago area, according to the Gang Book, with as many as 70 to 125,000 members. James Wagner is the President of the Chicago Crime Commission, a taskforce of civic leaders that studies public safety issues. He says the nation should be paying more attention to what he calls the enemy within.

Mr. JAMES W. WAGNER (President, Chicago Crime Commission): They're resilient. They're adaptable. And they're potentially more dangerous than they've ever been before.

CORLEY: Wagner says Chicago gang insignia has even turned up in Iraq, perhaps as an attempt to recruit members of the military. But while recruiting by older gang members may have drawn young people to join in the past, Wagner says that is no longer the incentive.

Mr. WAGNER: The real lure for joining gangs has become the access to drugs and the opportunity to make money.

CORLEY: Money made in a variety of ways: mortgage and real estate fraud, identity theft, money laundering. But the backbone of the gangs is still street corner drug sales. And gangs in the Chicago area, says the commission, make about a half billion dollars a year from illicit drugs. It's been anecdotal in the past, but the Gang Book now confirms that gang members are attempting to make more of that money in the suburbs.

Wagner says that's happening in part because the gangs have lost hiding places in Chicago, as neighborhoods gentrify and high-rise public housing units have been torn down.

Mr. WAGNER: And the Chicago Police Department has made it increasingly difficult for gang dealers to operate in the city of Chicago. And it's put a serious damper on their business and caused them to seek easier access elsewhere.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CORLEY: It's a warm, windy day in Linwood, Illinois, about 30 miles south of Chicago. In some areas, this village still has the look of a farm town, despite plenty of new large homes and well-tended lawns. Across the street from a strip mall, there's a cornfield. There are lots of kids on bicycles here. And Linwood certainly doesn't look like it has a problem with gangs. Residents don't think it does.

Ms. SERENA HEWITT(ph): I haven't noticed it as of yet.

CORLEY: Serena Hewitt was just leaving the strip mall. She's a middle school teacher and has lived in Linwood for 27 years.

Ms. HEWITT: I haven't seen any, you know, gang graffiti; I haven't seen any signals being thrown out at cars, or, you know, anything like that.

CORLEY: Inside R.C. Beauty Supply(ph), 21 year old Alana Price(ph) doesn't' think there's a problem either.

Ms. ALANA PRICE: It's a lot of young people that, you know, trying to be gang members. But it's fine now. I don't have no problems here.

CORLEY: What do you mean trying to be gang members?

Ms. PRICE: They see older kids in the cities; they see what they do. And they'll come out here and try and do it that way. The police ain't having it out here.

CORLEY: However, in the Gang Book, Linwood was one of a number of Chicago suburbs reporting an increase in gang activity over the past three years. Sergeant Dennis Tatchinhorst(ph) has been with the Linwood Police Department for 30 years. He says suburban communities have teamed up to form gang-fighting networks. But Chicago has more resources.

Sergeant DENNIS TATCHINHORST (Linwood Police Department, Linwood, Illinois): They have their particular, not only their tactical units, their specific gang units. A lot of cameras are in Chicago now. And, you know, people don't like to be watched.

CORLEY: So gangs have been making their way to the suburbs. And some, like Waukegan, Aurora, and Cicero, are home between one and 3,000 gang members. For Linwood, the numbers are much smaller, at 100-plus. Linwood and other Chicago area suburbs worried about handling gang related crime, may find some help in the Gang Book: it lists numbers of organizations and police departments who've found ways to fight back against gangs and the violence and crime they bring with them.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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