Chicago Confronts a Crime Wave

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Paul Beaty / AP

Chicago Police investigate a crime scene where three men and two women were found dead inside a house in Chicago's South Side.

The fatal stabbing of 9-year-old Mya Lyons on Chicago's South Side two weeks ago has galvanized an unprecedented political response. Scores of people marched through her father's neighborhood declaring, "We're not going to stand for this violence that's taking our young people," and bearing black-and-red placards reading "Stop. Killing. People." The city's murder rate has climbed 13% so far this year. As pressure mounted on city authorities, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich declared that crime in Chicago had gotten "out of control" — the city of 3 million has a gang population officially estimated at 70,000 — and offered to send state troopers into its most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Plainly, Chicago is facing a major problem, although its causes have not been much discussed by policy makers. The faltering economy is raising stress levels, and the desperation in many low-income communities is compounded by the return of thousands of often unskilled ex-convicts to neighborhoods in which they have little prospect for earning an honest living. The demolition of several high-rise public housing developments has also moved thousands of people into new neighborhoods, setting the stage for turf battles between rival gangs.

The response of the city authorities has been a kind of mini "surge" of police officers patrolling on foot and bicycle in high-crime neighborhoods, supported by helicopters frequently hovering overhead — which raises the level of anxiety of many residents. But bringing in state troopers may not be the answer, because being drawn largely from rural, mostly white locales, they are generally unaccustomed to the demands of urban policing. "A military response will invite even more problems," says Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminal justice and psychology professor at Loyola University here.

Still, so desperate are many residents of some Chicago neighborhoods that they are actually calling for an even greater police presence. But more aggressive policing at best simply contains the problem in the short-term, while running the risk of eventually turning many in the community against the authorities. That's why community groups are also attempt to tackle the problem at grass roots. One of the most promising initiatives is taking shape at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, on the city's West Side. Just a few years ago, news reports dubbed the church's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood one of America's most violent. Murders were so rampant that Irish immigrant plumbers refused to work in the neighborhood. Still, residents had no choice but to go about their daily routines. "We'd become so desensitized," recalls the church's pastor, Rev. Marshall E. Hatch, Sr.

Now, the 1,200-member church is open seven days a week, its air-conditioned fellowship hall serving as a sort of neighborhood cooling center. Over the last month, the church hosted a "community ministers" program in which college students supervise youths on work assignments such as planting flowers and collecting trash. The recent Friday Movie Night and Variety Show drew some 200 kids. In the fall, the church sponsors ACT- and SAT-prep courses, and hires college students as role models. "You go one block, and you're smack dab in the middle of the negative pathologies," Hatch says. "Outside of here, academic excellence is frowned upon. They'll tell you, 'you're trying to be white.' But here," he adds, "we're creating a counter-cultural oasis to the negativity."