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Pick 'Em Up, Lock 'Em Up: Getting Tough On Gangs II


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll talk about a recent column in Slate that's caused a lot of discussion about parents who seek accommodations at work to do things with and for their children. One columnist called it playing the kid card, and we'll talk about that in just a few minutes. But first, we want to continue our conversation about fighting gang violence in Chicago and a controversial plan from Illinois Senator Mark Kirk to deal with it. So with us are Ronald Safer. He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the '90s that led a crackdown on the Gangster Disciples gang leaders. He's now managing partner at the law firm Schiff Hardin. Rob Wildeboer is the crime and legal affairs reporter for member station WBEZ Chicago. And joining us from his Chicago office is Congressman Danny Davis, who represents Illinois' seventh district. Mr. Safer, before we took our break, you were making a point.

RONALD SAFER: Yes, it was that Senator Kirk is right, in that he says we should devote our resources to attacking these gangs. But Congressmen Rush is also right, that says that's not going to solve the gang problem. You know, the people used to ask me when I was prosecuting these gangs, how do you solve the gang problem? And I would tell them, it's very simple. You solve the gang problem by solving the education problem, by solving the housing problem, by solving the opportunity problem. And when we start investing in these communities, when we start providing - you know, it's very cynical, in my view, to say, just say no - when we start providing these kids with something to say yes to, then you'll make a dent in the gang problem.

Law enforcement has its role and we should be talking about that. We also should be talking about Representative Rush saying that's not going to solve the problem, and let him talk about how we should. And that's the purpose of Senator Kirk making this kind of a statement. It has focused people's attention.

MARTIN: Rob...

SAFER: That's good.

MARTIN: ...Rob Wildeboer, let me go to you. You know, there's some debate about the, sort of, the premise of the question, as Mr. Safer put it. In New York, there's a sense that this, these - that the crime problem isn't so much organized criminal enterprises but interpersonal disputes. You know, kids getting mad at kids and having access to weapons to act out interpersonal disputes and so that's why, kind of, this hotspot policing, as controversial as it is, does have some benefit. I'm wondering...

CONGRESSMAN DANNY DAVIS: But it's a combination of all these things...

MARTIN: No, I understand. Mr. Davis, could I just ask Rob Wildeboer to give us an answer to this. And I certainly want your perspective on it. But Rob, I'm asking you since you've talked to all sides here. What's your perspective on what - kind of the roots of this persistent issue in Chicago. Is it mainly interpersonal disputes? Is it organized criminal enterprises? What do you hear?

ROB WILDEBOER: I think you're right. The research by a criminologist named Andrew Papachristos shows that most of these shootings - and what we're talking about in Chicago, the problem we want to solve is not really gangs. I mean, yes, we want to solve that problem. But really, the priority is homicides and murder, right, and how gangs play into that.

So we don't necessarily just want to get rid of gangs, we want to get rid of them for a reason and so we want to focus on homicide. And the research shows that many of these homicides happen not because of money and because of business interests. Many of them just don't make any sense. They're interpersonal beefs about, you know, whose girlfriend is who and you looked at me the wrong way and that's what some of the research shows anyway.

And you know, Mr. Safer was making this point about how Kirk is saying some of this stuff just to get the conversation going. Well, to me, that seems a little - the conversation was going, okay. People were worried about homicides in Chicago and that's a good thing. We should be talking about that.

But then to just throw out a completely, you know, a plan that is not workable from any angle, that doesn't help push the conversation. I think it would be more helpful if we talked about solutions that were feasible and possible. He's talking about, you know, 18,000 gang members. The U.S. - Senator Kirk doesn't control the Chicago Police Department, of course, and they have their own priorities.

Senator Kirk could have some influence over the U.S. Attorney's Office. But that's an office of 160 people right now, that indicts about 700 people per - or 700 cases per year, about 1200 people.

So even best-case scenario, they drop all the Medicare fraud and all the other kinds of case - the political corruption cases that they're working on here in Chicago. And there's an alderman going on trial today who's going on trial for a second time after serving a previous jail sentence for bribery.

But let's say they drop all their cases. It would take them 15 years to go after the gang members Senator Kirk is talking about. So it doesn't seem like it's a really helpful place to push the conversation.

MARTIN: Okay, Congressman Davis - and I do want to raise another question with you. The Chicago Tribune reports that the murder rate is actually down in Chicago, that the number of homicides in April has dropped to its lowest level in 50 years. There were 94 homicides in the first four months of 2013 and in 2012 there were 42. Does this suggest that, perhaps, the present strategy is working?

DAVIS: Well, things are working, but the real deal is there is a difference between politicizing an issue and finding solutions to problems. One of the things that we obviously need to do is make sure that we provide outlets. That is, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League ball, reading clubs, anything that you can do to keep young people, as they're growing up, meaningfully engaged, meaningfully involved, the development of appropriate value systems and orientations, putting into place anti-bullying efforts, even in our school curriculums.

And now we're getting to the individuals who don't have a need to become part of a gang, a part of a group. Of course, providing summer employment opportunities, other kinds of employment opportunities. Now we're dealing with prevention. I've always been told that an ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure.

MARTIN: But, Congressman, if it's that simple, if you don't mind my asking, why isn't that happening now?

DAVIS: Because society does not have the will to do it. It does not have the will to do it. I asked a question the other day - we were meeting with the Speaker of the House - about just summer employment programs. The prognosis was, there probably won't be the opportunity. There probably will not be the resource. There will not be the money. So you can't solve these problems in a vacuum. You can't just - $30 million would be very helpful to do all of the things that we need to have done, but the likelihood of getting $30 million, dumping it or putting it into the Chicago Police Department, you know, it's not going to happen.

MARTIN: Let me just clarify that the statistic I cited earlier - there were 94 homicides in the first four months of 2013 versus 161 during that same timeframe in 2012, which is why I said that there has actually been a decline in the number of homicides. Ron Safer, I'm going to give you the final word here. We have about a minute and a half. What do you - people talk about what works. If it's clear, why aren't we doing it?

SAFER: We are doing it. We have to do more of it. What works in terms of law enforcement is the U.S. Attorney's Office. Using the federal laws, using a joint approach with the Chicago police, as well as DEA, the FBI, IRS, and going after the gang leaders. And then we can give - you know, Robert is absolutely right. You can't arrest all of these people and you can only arrest a small fraction.

But what you do by getting the gang leaders is you give the community leaders, you give the parents, the priests, the teachers an opportunity to say to kids - hey, you know that guy who you idolized, with the fancy car and all of the jewelry and that? He's now in jail for the rest of his life. Is that what you want to do? The price is too high for the lifestyle. And that's what you're trying to accomplish.

That's what you do by going after the leadership of the gangs, but at the same time, you have to be giving these kids something to say yes to. You have to have both hands working together, or one hand is ineffective.

MARTIN: Ron Safer was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the 1990s who led a strategy to strike at the Gangster Disciples, a gang. He's now managing partner at the law firm Schiff Hardin in Chicago. Rob Wildeboer is WBEZ Chicago's crime and legal affairs reporter. They both were with us from WBEZ. Congressman Danny Davis is a Democrat. He represents Illinois' seventh congressional district and he was kind enough to join us by phone from his Chicago office. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you.

SAFER: Thank you.

WILDEBOER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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