Chicago police and meeting with gangs

When the story came out last week that Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis had met with gang leaders to deliver a warning that the police would crack down if the violence continued, I wondered if there would be some backlash. Many people looking at this story might be incredulous: why didn’t the police just arrest the gang members? If they know who the people are who are responsible for the violence, why not crack down already? Why are the Chicago police negotiating with gangs?

Mayor Daley defended Weis today:

The mayor, who faces re-election in February, has been trying to address criticism about continued violence on city streets. One approach has been to send Weis out for more public appearances to talk about crime…

Today, Daley likened the idea to the negotiations between war combatants.

“It’s a good concept. You’ll sit down with anyone,” Daley said. “We’ll negotiate after the Second World War. We’ll negotiate with anyone to have peace. Even during the war. So you sit down with anyone. If you can save one life, if I can save your son’s life, you’d want me to sit down with them,” the mayor said.

While this may not convince people (just read the comments after the story), the story behind such negotiations is much more complicated. Sudhir Venkatesh’s research about poor Chicago neighborhoods reveals that the police and the gangs actually have a relationship. Gang members may be partaking in criminal activities but they are also active, powerful, and important actors in their community. It is not as simple as just going in and arresting everyone.

The TV show The Wire illustrates this gray area. In the series, the police are generally after the leaders of the gangs, the guys in charge. They could crack down on the small-time dealers or runners but others just pop into place. While the crack-downs may look good for the media (and outsiders looking in), it doesn’t solve the larger problems.

Both Venkatesh’s research and The Wire suggest the problems of these neighborhoods are deeper than the gang activity. There are persistent problems of poverty, a lack of jobs, a lack of opportunities, poor schools, broken infrastructure, and isolation from the outside world. How to solve these issues and the problems of gangs is difficult – and would require a much broader perspective than just counting the number of crimes, arrests, and meetings between the police and gangs.

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