Despite agreement, top cop 'not a big fan' of Chicago anti-violence group

June 12, 2012

(AP/M. Spencer Green)
Alphonso Prater, left, and Karl Bell 'violence interrupters' with CeaseFire, patrol the streets of Chicago's West Side, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2006, hoping to stop retaliatory gang violence.

Chicago's police superintendent is publicly raising concerns about the anti-violence group CeaseFire, even as the Chicago Police Department puts the finishing touches on a plan to work with the group in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods.

When asked at a Tuesday breakfast forum how he thought CeaseFire was affecting gang violence on the South and West Sides, McCarthy said he hopes the group will begin to take a more "Chicago-centric" approach.

"We're gonna work with CeaseFire in a different fashion, not the way that they've been working," McCarthy said. "I'm not a big fan of the way that they've been working."

McCarthy suggested the anti-violence group undermines respect for police in some neighborhoods, as it sometimes mediates conflicts without police involvement.

"When an event occurs, and people are trying to deal with gang members, and somebody comes in and tries to interrupt that particular dynamic, and they tell people, 'Well, don't talk to the police. We understand you can't trust the police, but look at us, you can trust us' - they're undercutting that legitimacy that we're trying to create in the community," McCarthy said.

The top cop's criticism came as a surprise to CeaseFire Director Tio Hardiman, who said he was "really amazed" by McCarthy's comments.

"There's never been a time when we told people one way or the other what they should do. I just wanna make that clear," Hardiman said.

Hardiman said CeaseFire workers sometimes prevent violence before police need to be called, but he stressed they do not advise people against contacting law enforcement.

When asked to clarify McCarthy's comments, Chicago Police spokeswoman Melissa Stratton said in a statement, "“We are currently working with CeaseFire to develop a Chicago-centric model that will complement our new gang violence reduction strategy as part of a pilot program in three districts.”

The superintendent's public criticism comes at a bad time for both Hardiman's group and the city. While headline-grabbing violence has erupted in some neighborhoods as the weather warms, both sides have been putting the finishing touches on a $1.5 million city-funded pilot program to deploy CeaseFire workers to the three high-crime police districts on the South and West Sides.

CeaseFire's method for preventing violence involves talking directly with gang members to cool down tense situations before they turn violent. The group was the subject of the award-winning 2011 documentary The Interrupters, which is titled after CeaseFire's front-line activists who take to some of Chicago's roughest streets to intervene in potential conflicts.

But despite its stop-the-shooting message, CeaseFire's pending agreement with the city has not been without controversy. Earlier this month, the Chicago Sun-Times reported a handful of CeaseFire employees had been charged with crimes over the past five years - while they were on the group's payroll.

CeaseFire's website says its interrupters are "seasoned, well-trained professionals from the communities they represent with a background on the streets."

Even Hardiman acknowledged working in tandem with Chicago police, while maintaining the street cred CeaseFire needs to do its job, is a tough balancing act.

"People may not trust us and call us all the time if they feel the relationship is so close," Hardiman said. "So I respect the police department, you know, but at the same time I understand that we all have to just walk a fine line here."

Despite the need for a buffer zone, Hardiman seemed concerned about what McCarthy's comments mean for CeaseFire's pending collaboration with police and the city.

"We've had a [procession] of meetings," he said. "We talk about working together, moving forward, and here you go making comments like this," Hardiman said. "That's not good."