Share this Page

Fill out this simple form to send an email to a friend who might enjoy this page.

Featured Article

An Examination of Gangs and Urban Violence

Article by Sheridan Lardner, Second-year undergraduate, University of Chicago

On December 6 2008, I had the privilege to attend the joint School of Social Service Administration and Alumni Association conference on Gangs and Urban Violence. This is an account of the daylong event, outlining my impressions regarding the topics, proceedings, and ideas.

“Gangs, guns, and drugs.” Three scourges of the city, declared by Chicago Police Superintendant Jody Weis as the ominous focuses at the Conference on Gangs and Urban Violence. Collaborating with Chicago Police Department, University alumni, University faculty, and the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) sought to illuminate the shadowy underworld of Chicago’s gangs; their methods, motives, and the violent scars they leave on the community. Downtown Chicago’s Gleacher Center served as the meeting place for the conference, with seven diverse speakers gathering for seven equally diverse presentations. Co-directors of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, SSA professors Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, shared their findings and dialogue with a range of other experts in this defining conversation. Through examining the often misunderstood world of gangs, SSA hoped to promote informed conversation on a topic critical to the future of law enforcement, social work, and the city of Chicago itself.   

Leading off the event was Superintendant Weis, detailing the constant game of escalation between law enforcement and gangs. Laying out the fundamentals of the gang problem in Chicago, Mr. Weis emphasized the mobility and evolving structure of gangs in countering the police’s efforts. These efforts too were expanded upon, with Mr. Weis elaborating on a range of new strategies implemented to pressure Chicago’s gangs. The bad guys aren’t staying in one place, so neither should the police; this was Mr. Weis’s strategy as he described newly formed police units, free to deploy to any hotspot of crime, completely un-tethered by district or beat. Community also plays a critical role in the CPDs new tactics, with “Text-a-Tip” programs offering a cell-phone-using generation easy and safe methods for alerting police and keeping their neighborhoods safe. Mr. Weis showed that even in a year as bloody as 2008, the police worked tirelessly to combat the forces of violence and destruction that threatened the safety of communities.

Plunging deeper into the sinister crevices of gang life, Sergeant Eddie Yoshimura of the Gang Intelligence Unit outlined the evolution of modern, Chicago gangs. To the gangs, Illinois correctional institutions and the streets exist in a symbiotic, although oftentimes disjointed, relationship. Through the lens of these two categories, Sergeant Yoshimura described the formation and leadership of four broader gang alliances: One Love, Latin Folks, Kings, and the Finballs. From the infamous Gangster Disciples of One Love, the Finball Vicelords, and the Latin Kings, the discussed groups and their members provided a chilling cross-section of Chicago’s gang situation. Punctuating his point on the brutality of gangs, the CPD supplemented Sergeant Yoshimura’s lecture by laying out an armory of gang weapons, from crude, medieval looking bats covered in industrial staples, to sleek Tec-9 and Mac-10 assault weapons. Sergeant Yoshimura emphasized the adaptability of gangs to current law enforcement strategy, and the complexity of gang hierarchy and history. His words added profound detail and weight to the observations already made by Mr. Weis.

Initiating the first of many University of Chicago presentations, SSA Associate Professor Dexter Voisin complemented the street-savvy discussion by the CPD with a more academic angle. Primarily referencing a survey of Southside high schools, Professor Voisin touched on the less tangible effects violence has on the community, and the less obvious victims of these effects. A sobering proportion of students at the studied institutions, unnamed for confidentiality, had not only been the direct victim of a violent crime, but merely witnessed a violent crime, or seen a dead body in a context other than at a funeral. Professor Voisin related children’s stories of watching friends and strangers hurt, robbed, and gunned down in front of their eyes, embodying the mentality of fear so responsible for driving violence in distressed communities. Collecting statistical evidence of falling grades, poor attendance, and troubled relationships between exposed children and their school teachers, Professor Voisin highlighted the oftentimes unseen damage that violence can have, not only on victims or perpetrators of violence. A bullet has only one target, but the spilled blood stains far more than just that one victim. Parents, siblings, friends, and mere acquaintances; the entire community becomes the victim.

Following a discussion-filled lunch break, University of Chicago Law School Professor Randolph Stone explained the legal system and its treatment of juvenile justice. With gangs comprised of mostly younger members, many in high school or younger, the realm of juvenile justice was a critical one for the conference. The former public defender for Cook County, Professor Stone made us consider some of his previous cases. Four gang members in a North Side housing project are charged with first degree homicide. Two are proven to be the shooters. Two were only lookouts. These two lookouts were both juveniles at the time of the shooting, targeting rival gang members visiting the neighborhood. Should you charge them with the murders? Should you charge them as adults? What mitigating and aggravating factors would you account for in making these decisions? In considering these disparate elements, Professor Stone discussed his own views on the current sentencing laws, condemning their harshness and imbalances, a stance many in the audience agreed with. Yet, during the ensuing Q&A session, equally many audience members expressed their concern about reducing legal punishments towards juveniles. Older, higher ranking gang leaders are notorious in their use of juveniles, or “shorties”, to transport drugs, oversee deals, and carry out violence. These gang members know full well the law’s blindspots for children, using younger members of the gang whenever possible knowing the law will be so lenient. Would lowering sentencing and prosecution standards for juveniles merely increase this rampant abuse? Or would it offer children a second chances for their mistakes? These are challenging questions, one the audience could not reach consensus on, but ones worthy of far more thought in relation to the larger gang question.

With “gangs” and “drugs” receiving a lot of attention thus far, it was SSA’s McCormick Foundation Professor Jens Ludwig’s turn to tackle “guns”. Co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, Professor Ludwig began by assessing the firearm situation nationwide, an educational talk that went over gun ownership facts, tackling the causative and correlative difficulties between crime and guns. While this attack on conventional wisdom was informative, it paled in comparison to Professor Ludwig’s incisive discussion of the underground Chicago gun economy. Public and media opinion often quivers in fear at the proliferation of handguns and assault rifles in the city; not only does every bad guy have a gun, but if they do not have one,  it is a matter of just asking around and a few days until they acquire one. In a research paper coauthored by Philip Cook and Sudhir Venkatesh, Professor Ludwig offered compelling evidence to the contrary. Illegal guns are extremely difficult to purchase in Chicago. All potential transactions are plagued by high levels of distrust by both seller and buyer. Either party could be an undercover officer. Even if not, there is no honor amongst thieves, and there is no guarantee that one party does not just wish to rob the other. Markup prices are incredibly high, product quality varies drastically, and overall transaction time is not measured in days, but in weeks. Professor Ludwig described the limiting of weaponry to gangs by their leaders; predominantly organizations focused on the selling of drugs, gangs find their business damaged by increased police pressure in the wake of violence. As such, profit-minded leaders restrict gang access to guns. Coupled with the high-friction black market already described, Professor Ludwig repainted Chicago’s gangland. His concluding advice: law enforcement focus on guns and the few arms dealers would increase the friction of an already fragile market, putting a potentially sizable dent in urban gun violence.

The war on gangs, guns, and drugs is not one waged by just the police. Indeed, perhaps the best way to think of it isn’t as a war at all. Showing the effectiveness of a new approach to the decades-old problem, Dr. Gary Slutkin, MD ’75, gave a lecture on the work of his groundbreaking group CeaseFire. Under Dr. Slutkin’s direction, this organization treats the colloquially stated “epidemic” of urban violence as just that, an epidemic. A virus. CeaseFire operates on the philosophy that violence, like any virus, is caused by certain carriers. Isolate and stop the carriers, and you stop the virus’s transmission. Practically speaking, whether avenging a fallen gang or family member, shooting someone for disrespecting you, proving yourself with a pistol, or many other reasons, young men involved with gangs are prone to lethal behavior. Dr. Slutkin’s group deploys “interrupters” to high-risk areas, targeting high-risk people, and persuading them to put down their guns. These carefully selected and screened interrupters include longtime community members, former gang members, and some who are recently out of prison. These brave men and women enter street situations where violence is about to erupt, just trying to convince potential shooters not to pull the trigger in favor of any other alternative. Interrupters do not arrest. They talk. They encourage young men to think of their families, their friends, and the consequences of their actions. But mostly, they just try and stop the shooting. CeaseFire’s impact on Chicago neighborhoods has been tremendous. In the first year of implementation alone, the communities in which CeaseFire operated experienced a 45% decrease in shootings compared to a mere 10% reduction in all of Chicago. Between June 2006 and 2007, while CeaseFire’s neighborhoods saw a 50% shooting decrease, nearby communities not operated in actually experienced a 10% increase. Dr. Slutkin’s novel and effective approach has enjoyed stunning success in Chicago, and is now being implemented in other cities across the nation.

The difficult task of conclusion and contextualization fell to SSA Associate Professor Harold Pollack. Co-directing the University of Chicago Crime Lab alongside colleague Jens Ludwig, professor Pollack sought to give some direction and perspective to the day’s presentations and dialogue on gangs, guns, and drugs. It is a time for new programs and new ideas, as exemplified in all the researched words that had been said. Yet, we must step with great caution. Research and evidence must drive our policy decisions, not common sense and apparently sound logic. Professor Pollack offered a policy example from the 60s. Is it a good idea to build apartment buildings in urban areas for welfare recipients and poor families to live, centralizing resources and residents to maximize help and opportunities? Apartments where these people will live just until they can get on their feet and find better work and income? Sounds like a fine idea, but this was the thought process that went into the infamous Chicago housing projects like Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green. Employing cautionary examples like this, Professor Pollack urged the audience to research their methods before employing them on such a wide and potentially devastating scale as was seen in the Chicago Housing Authority projects. Professor Pollack exemplified the SSA dedication to the intersection between theory and practice, showing that it was not enough to just observe the gang problem. Something must be done. Whatever is done, however, must be thoroughly researched and investigated before being put into wide use. It is this strategy which was a powerful endpoint for the December conference, and one that will now be a cornerstone of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Seven presentations. Three scourges. One unifying hope. Lurking in the words of every speaker, hidden in every topic, was an underlying and overarching goal of bettering this world. Whether through the street-level interactions of police and gang members, the judicial responsibility towards crime, or the researchers who must inform policy, everyone gathered towards a common purpose of Chicago-wide improvement. By the end of 2008, the city’s murder rate had climbed to 510 dead, the highest since 2002. Not only were 80% of these murders committed with guns, but at least half of them were gang-related or motivated. Gangs and urban violence will continue to play a decisive role in Chicago’s infamous claim to the murder capital of America, but conferences like this one prove that people are not standing idly by. Through initiatives such as the Crime Lab, the University continues to work with the community to erase the bloody marks of the past and put an end to living in fear. At least for Chicago’s immediate future, this pursuit will always stare down its three greatest enemies; gangs, guns, and drugs.

Jens Ludwig

Jens Ludwig