Desperate times are fostering desperate reactions in Chicago, where even before the calendar so much as officially turned to summer a spiraling gang problem now has the city wickedly on course toward recording the most homicides of any year in its history. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is championing a high-stakes, aspirational crime-busting alliance between the city’s police department and organization headed by many of those who once stood as some of the area’s most hardened criminals.
With homicides up by 39 percent over the first six-months of this year (250) compared to last (182) and on the strength of a $1 million grant from the Chicago Department of Health allowing it to expand to its operations into even more high crime areas, beginning Friday of this week the CPD will commence working hand-and-hand with Ceasefire Chicago, an antiviolence, community outreach group whose model and approach centers around recruiting ex-gang members and felons to act as mediators in curbing hot-pocket violence.
Despite all the scrutiny and uncertainty, Ceasefire executive director Tio Hardiman remains just as adamant in defending the now twelve-year-old organization’s philosophy as he is praising all its deep-in-the trenches success stories he seems most proud of.
“We pride ourselves on stopping guys from crossing that line,” he said, of the group’s belief in regularly interspersing so-called “violent interrupters” into neighborhood were violence appears ready to blow. “This way, nobody has to go to the cemetery. Nobody has to go to the penitentiary.”
Other specifics of the pilot program agreement call for Ceasefire to hire at least 40 more workers, all or at least most of whom will be assigned to the high crime neighborhoods of Woodlawn and Lawndale. Over the course of the pact, Ceasefire responders will be required to undergo strict evaluations governed under the department‘s CompStat account system, a platform that identifies established and emerging crime trends in determining how resources are best allocated and most efficiently utilized.
From there, the department plans to vigorously monitor and study the actual number of interruptions Ceasefire responders are able to achieve, all along with an eye toward perhaps broadening the coalition even more and in other areas of the city. Currently, Chicago is currently home to more than an estimated 100,000 gang members.
While the jury largely remains out on what if any level of effectiveness the Ceasefire coalition may breed, most all, particularly those such as Harper High School principal Leonetta Sanders, agree something desperately needs to be done. Over the last twelve months, Sanders has endured the heart-wrenching experience of bearing witness to at least 27 of her current or former students being gunned down in the streets, eight of them fatally.
In a WBEZ radio interview outside the funeral of 16-year sophomore Shakaki Asphy, who was hit by a stray bullet and killed as she sat on her front porch talking with friends, Sanders again spoke of all the desperation… and heartache.
“When I found out, I was getting ready for church… and I broke down, I couldn’t even go,” she said. “With Shakaki’s death, a lot of people broke down. “We here (Harper High) are literally picking up students in the morning in our own cars and bringing them to school because they cannot walk in certain areas. If I could, I would pick them all up.”
That’s where Hardiman and Ceasefire officials are hoping to help. “You can’t arrest away the problem,” said Hardiman, pointing to the fact that his organization also tirelessly works in peacefully quelling disputes before they hit the point of violence. “The thing is, you arrest 200 guys today, another 200 guys are released next week.”
Added group founder Dr. Gary Slutkin: “We know how to detect and interrupt.” In Mayor Emmanuel, the group’s approach and bottom line results seems to have at least impressed the one man who matters most.
After watching the group’s acclaimed documentary “The Interrupters,” (watch trailer below) Emmanuel decided to arrange talks between his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, and Slutkin. aimed at a potential partnership.
Yet, even with Emmanuel as a mediator, the two have clearly made for uneasy partners. Behind the scenes, McCarthy has complained of having to deal with once hardened criminals that now refuse to share key information with officers about other, ongoing criminal activity.
In addition, McCarthy has expressed immense reservations over what he sees as the group’s undermining of the department in the way interrupters often attempt to broker peace pacts without any input or involvement at all from officers.
“When an event occurs, and people are trying to deal with gang members, and somebody comes in and tries to interrupt that particular dynamic, and they tell people, “Well, don’t talk to the police. We understand you can’t trust the police, but look at us, you can trust us’— they’re undercutting that we’re trying to create in the community,” McCarthy recently told the Chicago Tribune.
Countered Hardiman:“Everybody understands that at Ceasefire we have a proven model. The model works the way it is, and we’re not going to change the model. If we did, we’d be ineffective," adding that Ceasefire members will not be acting as “informants” to the police.
“We’re not looking back,” said First Deputy Police Supt. Al Wysinger.“The amount of gun violence in our city is unacceptable. We’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about people. We need this to work.”
The whole city needs it even more.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.