For years here, talk about the problem of gang crime seems to have been just that — talk — and not much more. Though the talk has risen a bit at times over the past 15 years along with the actual rate of gang crime in poor, African-American neighborhoods, it hasn't helped much in reversing the trend. The mounting number of apparent gang-related shootings and bloodshed earlier this month -- 16 shootings and three deaths -- readily confirms that.
But for the moment, there appears to be a chance for substantive change.
One marker was Mayor-elect Andy Berke's decision to focus on making public safety a priority. He did so by holding a roundtable discussion on the issue in Highland Park last week, several weeks ahead of taking office.
The event, which included small group discussions, drew an unexpectedly large number of residents, around 500, from every section of the city. Another 200 watched it on streaming video. All the attendees seemed eager to tell stories about the impact of crime in neighborhoods and to say what they believe needs to happen to ratchet it down.
Most of the participants were African-Americans weary of the toll of gang-related violence in their neighborhoods and tired of being fearful for themselves and their loved ones.
A few days later, leaders of several gangs from various parts of town agreed to a truce last Sunday at a meeting of gang leaders which had been months in the making. One of the attendees, Skip Eberhardt, a former gang leader who now runs a program to help high school dropouts earn a GED, said the leaders were tired "of seeing some of their best buddies getting killed." As this was written Friday, the truce is holding.
These are not certain signs of progress toward solving the problem of gangs, to be sure, but they point in that direction, and they build on significant study by city and community leaders and police over the past two years. Much of this prior work has aimed at understanding the reasons for gang activity and the scope of the problem.
The city and the mayor's office don't have to reinvent the wheel to understand the environment of poverty and socio-economic conditions that fuel gangs. There are reams of gang studies and model programs elsewhere concerning gangs and how to insulate young people from them.
And there are now plenty of comments from citizens in a range of gang-affected neighborhoods about the problems of unwatched children and teenagers hanging out on the streets in groups at night; of seeing vulnerable youngsters being drawn into gang activities -- partly out of fear and peer pressure, and partly out of a dearth of options -- and causing fear that drives them indoors and impedes positive neighborhood activities.
The core need to mitigate gang activity is long-term commitment on many fronts. More effective policing is just one of many intertwined issues. Most important are funding and commitment to neighborhood, family and street-level programs designed to give young children and at-risk juveniles a safer environment, more constructive activities and effective mentoring after school and at home.
Parents may need assistance to become capable first teachers and nurturing guardians. Schools cannot just expel trouble-making gang members; they must offer intensive, if separate, educational programs to steer delinquents back on track, rather than turning them out on the street to gangs.
More intensive police patrols and neighborhood watch programs and curfews must be created. Juvenile Court must provide more seamless cooperation with anti-gang initiatives and family accountability. And law enforcement and prosecution of serious gang-and-gun-related crimes must be pursued with more constancy and vigor.
The larger work of curbing gangs and gang-related violence has to focus for the long term on building up neighborhoods, alleviating poverty, providing jobs and strengthening families and personal aspirations. Like talk, transient efforts won't get the city there. At the least, it will take a committed mayor and neighborhood help just to get the effort rolling.