CHICAGO — A new approach is needed to achieve public safety on the South and West sides, according to a report released by violence prevention leaders.
The Reimagining Public Safety report, released by Chicago CRED in mid-October, urges city leadership and public safety groups to reimagine public safety from the ground up: what it looks like, who is responsible for creating it and how officials invest in public safety strategies.
The report was created after a series of nine focus groups that brought together local leaders, street outreach workers and elected officials.
While most of the 200-plus participants in the focus groups disagreed with calls to abolish the Chicago Police Department, the conversations showed deep-seated frustrations with police among the violence prevention community. The violence plaguing parts of the South and West sides is a symptom of deeper social issues that cannot be policed away, the report said.
The report echoed the results of a city budget survey that found 85 percent of respondents supported funding social services and other programs by shifting money out of the police budget.
“There was a lot of desire for things that they feel don’t exist, like mental health services, like housing, jobs. All of those things that they assume would be part of healthy communities, they don’t feel are there” on the South and West sides, said Peter Cunningham, of Chicago CRED.
Many violence prevention advocates think police have not been effective at preventing crime. At best, police catch perpetrators after a crime happens, Cunningham said.
“Police are only reactive and never proactive. We heard that from a lot of people,” Cunningham said. “Police don’t really stop [a] shooting; they show up after it happens. Unless they happen to be at the right spot at the right time.”
The Police Department reported a 53 homicide clearance rate in 2019 —but nearly 60 percent of those cases never saw an arrest, according to a recent analysis by the Sun-Times.
The likelihood of Chicago police solving a murder plummets when the victim is Black. Less than 22 percent of murder cases involving a Black victim were solved between January 2018 and July 2019, according to a report fromWBEZ.
By comparison, violence prevention groups have documented hundreds of conflicts that street outreach teams mediated before violence could occur.
Mediators do this by building trusted relationships with people vulnerable to gun violence so they can de-escalate conflicts and prevent retaliation when violence does occur.
“When they engage directly with young people at risk of shooting or being shot, they do stop some shootings,” Cunningham said.
The violence prevention groups also tackle the social circumstances that lead people into circumstances where they are at-risk for violence. Outreach workers connect people to social services like legal aid, employment opportunities and housing programs to guide them toward a better path.
The focus groups indicated they think police are necessary in some situations, but the city and communities must work together to rethink how and when policing is an appropriate strategy rather than a catchall solution.
“The role of the police officer should be to protect the community. They’re saying they should be doing what they’re originally set out to do. But they don’t do that that right now,” said Marcus Yancey, who facilitated the focus groups of outreach workers.
More officers should also be people from the community who can relate to residents, participants said. The report found that in Auburn Gresham, 90 percent of officers are not from the community.
The report also indicated public safety advocates want more opportunities for violence interrupters, mental health practitioners and social workers to intervene before cops get involved, or to intervene in coordination with law enforcement.
“The officer should be a friend to the community. They should be there to assist,” Yancey said.
A reimagined approach to public safety would have to prioritize investments that address the root causes of crime, especially housing, unemployment and mental health, violence prevention advocates said.
“A public health approach isn’t about arresting. It isn’t about imprisoning. It’s about preventing and addressing the root causes that create a culture of violence. It’s about addressing the non-criminal activities that sometimes lead to violence,” Cunningham said.
The focus groups gave credit to Chicago Police and city leadership for shifting from a law enforcement first-and-only approach. The Police Department has expanded community policing strategies that rely on relationships with residents to make neighborhoods safer, according to a police spokesperson.
The department’s “crimefighting strategy is an effort that not only focuses on traditional policing, but also focuses on our partnerships with block clubs, community-based organizations and street outreach organizations in neighborhoods citywide,” said a spokesperson for Chicago Police in a statement responding to the CRED report.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has proposed a “co-responder” pilot program that would see mental health care workers responding to some 911 calls alongside police.
Lightfoot also increased the violence prevention budget from virtually nothing to $11 million in her first year, the report said. But still, the city spends over 150 times more on policing than on violence prevention, according to budget data.
“That’s nothing to sneeze at. But it is still way, way below scale. We need 10 times as much to really find out if these strategies … can dramatically shrink gun violence,” Cunningham said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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