Policies towards Violence in Chicago Need to Change

On April 11, 2019, The City of Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General Public Safety Section released a Review of the Chicago Police Department’s “Gang Database.”  On April 16, The Chicago Reporter published a piece by Professors John Hagedorn, Robert Aspholm, Teresa Córdova, Andrew Papachristos and Lance Williams in which they provide some of the highlights from their January 29, 2019 report on The Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago: A Research Based Reorientation of Violence Prevention and Intervention Policy.  Both reports provide fodder for why and how Chicago needs to think differently about its problems of violence.

A primary strategy for addressing violence by the Chicago’s Police Department (CPD) is maintaining what is referred to as a “gang data base.”  The list of problems with the systems of collecting, maintaining and using the database is very long. The review from the Inspector General’s Office provides irrefutable evidence that CPD’s “gang database” is replete with outdated information and inaccuracies, that it disproportionately targets black and brown men (91.3% of 134,242 arrest cards) and is replete with dehumanizing labels.  Once on the list, getting off is next to impossible, although being on the list can have “life altering impacts.” There are questions therefore, about the means of collecting the data; its use; and its impacts.

In the cover letter to the 159-page report, Deputy Inspector General, Joseph Lipari states,

The Review found that: 1) CPD lacks sufficient controls for generating, maintaining, and sharing gang-related data; 2) CPD gang information practices lack procedural fairness protections; 3) CPD gang designations raise significant data quality concerns; and 4) CPD practices and lack of transparency regarding its gang designations strain police-community relations.

The Deputy Inspector further states,

Consistent with many of the concerns raised to OIG by members of the public, our review concluded that CPD’s gang information systems present certain risks that, if left unaddressed, will continue to undermine public trust and confidence in the police and, because of the broad perception and the lived experience of many, that the current system causes significant collateral consequences for individuals and communities.

After an in-depth analysis, which included extensive interviews with a range of stakeholders, the Inspector General’s Office suggests a reconsideration of the effectiveness of CPD’s “gang designation practices” in stemming violence in the city.

Based on the insufficient controls, lack of procedural fairness protections, data quality concerns, and impact on police-community relations, CPD should undertake a holistic evaluation of the ongoing utility and impacts of continuing to collect gang designations.

The reliance on the gang database to tackle violence is largely based on outdated assumptions about the structure of gangs as well as the relationship between gangs and violence. Citing the primary conclusions of Hagedorn et. al. on the Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago, the Inspector General report notes that the hierarchical structures of gangs of the past have been replaced by horizontal and fractured cliques (p. 52). Violence is more often a result of personal affronts that turn into retaliation than a result of what is often referred to as “gang warfare.”  As Hagedorn et. al. state, “The nature of gang violence in Chicago has been changing, but policies and practices toward it have not.”

As the problem of violence in Chicago is addressed and as CPD responds to the Inspector General’s report, it is important to distinguish between “gang violence,” that may be related to drugs, violence unrelated to gang activity but committed by members of a gang, and violence unrelated to gang activity by individuals who have no affiliation with a gang.  Merely tweaking how data is collected for a revised gang data base, regardless of what it is called, still leaves the focus for violence prevention on mistaken assumptions about gang activity and neglects what Hagedorn et. al. argue should be the most important focus:  a new anti-violence policy that de-emphasizes gangs and instead emphasizes conflict resolution among youth in a context of significantly increased employment and neighborhood economic development.